The WildLab is an inquiry-based educational program. As such, the team often fields students' unexpected questions--each bird sighting becoming a touchstone for questions about other plants and animals. This creates a fuller picture of the biome--it is hard not to notice what a bird is feeding on, and ask, "What kind of plant is it?"
The design of the technology must respond to these needs to be effective. Last week, one classroom sighted a Peregrine Falcon flying overhead. This majestic species, once almost exterminated from the eastern United States, is a regular, if uncommon, sighting. Our original July 2009 design did not include photographs and audio of the species, so students had no way to log the sighting.
We re-designed the app so that students can fill log a species that isn't included in our application. Students can also now enter larger numbers easily--migrating flocks of geese and seagulls sometimes top one hundred individuals.
The iPhone application would benefit from a wider selection of species, and we are looking for a data partner or partners to provide more photographs, audio, and even 3D models, if available. It would be great to have information on flora within the application. We're also experimenting with various social media platforms and how best to make the data freely available and searchable, instantaneously.
Here are some excerpts from the field driving these developments:
One class found a bird skull. The kids noticed how thin and light the skull was; it had a toothless beak, unlike the bird's dinosaur ancestors, which we talked about in the classroom. However, like the Velociraptor from Jurassic Park, it had more in common with chicken dinner than they realized.
On another occasion, two Red-tailed Hawks were sighted in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, fighting for territory over the meadow. It was quite a show--one of them tried to grab a starling mid-air from a passing flock.
A class in Sunset Park observed the opposite situation, in which a flock of Starlings chased a Red-tailed Hawk; previously, none of the students realized hawks could be found in their own neighborhood. One student guessed that there would be about three species in Brooklyn, and was amazed to find out that in Prospect Park alone there are close to 250! By the end of the day, the student identified and logged many more than three species. Another group successfully used the stages of the app to identify the rather challenging White-throated Sparrow, which was satisfying for all involved.
Walking along the reservoir and spotting lots of ducks, geese and gulls, one class came across a startling apple tree full of red apples. It was so colorful and fairy-like that the students had a hard time believing they were real apples! They looked better than what the students see in markets; birds love them too.
One group of students had the challenge of counting over a hundred gulls at the Central Park reservoir. They learned that "a bunch of gulls" is called a flock causing their teacher to reminisce about one of his favorite 80s bands.
Next week, we hold the WildLab's first final class. It will test not only the learning taking place in the field, but also the tools we have developed to visualize and interpret the data. A scientist will be available via videochat to discuss the class's sightings, and the class will submit their data to the Cornell eBird site.