Network Science: Bats, Birds, and Trees
ABSTRACT By linking up electronically, dozens of New Hampshire schools are enabling children to explore ecological issues the way real scientists do.
At dusk, a girl stands in the middle of her yard, her arms outstretched in a V shape. She is counting the number of bats that pass by in a certain amount of time. She records her count, as well as the air temperature and estimated wind speed. In the morning, she will report her sightings along with those of her classmates on an electronic network that links her classroom to others across southeastern New Hampshire. She and her fellow students are trying to find out whether bats live in the region in September.
At another school, though recess is over, small groups of 5th graders remain on the playground. They sit quietly as they await the return of birds disturbed by their schoolmates' shouts and running. The children will count the birds they see within a specific period and note their species. Their research, and that of the students with whom they are linked, will help them learn the bird species native to New Hampshire and how well the environment supports these species.
Other children are also carrying on research. Even before the snows of winter have melted, students armed with tape measures fan out in the woods surrounding their school. They measure the diameter of trees, as they have done near their homes. Their data will help determine the age of New Hampshire's forests.
BATNET, BIRDNET, TREENET All these children are involved in three network science projects for grades 2-8: Batnet, Birdnet, and Treenet. Their school districts are part of a 12-district southeastern New Hampshire consortium that operates the listservs that support these projects. The projects were developed by a group of teachers who were interested in using the computer-Internet connection to enrich and extend the science learning already going on in their classrooms.
Batnet, created in 1994, was the first. It was devised by a group of teachers under the auspices of Project RISE, funded by a National Science Foundation Teacher Enhancement Grant. The project involves 32 K-8 schools in the 12-district consortium--known as the Southeastern Regional Education Service Center. For three summers, Project RISE consultants offered us content knowledge in science, national curriculum training, information about reform efforts, and workshops in model classroom practices, such as cooperative learning. Finally, during the summer of 1994, they trained eight teachers in the use of technology in the classroom, and those teachers created Batnet. In planning this project, we agreed that it must meet the following criteria:
* Be extremely interesting to both students and teachers;
* Have a research component;
* Span grade levels;
* Take into account students' varying computer abilities; and
* Allow for flexible scheduling. In 1996, teachers from the same districts used our criteria to develop Birdnet and Treenet. This time I obtained an Eisenhower Professional Development Grant to support the efforts.
WHY NETWORK SCIENCE? During the initial training, the thrill of downloading pictures from NASA and lesson plans from Canada quickly gave way to two questions: In what direction do we want to move with telecommunications? and How will network science improve classroom learning?
Candace Julyan, who had worked on the design of the National Geographic Society's Kids Network, and Karl Haven, our technology expert, helped us answer these questions. They helped us design educational experiences that melded technology and science in a way that was meaningful and realistic for our students. We devised two data gathering and telecommunications programs (Birdnet and Treenet) to develop some protocols for the future, both for new participants and new projects.
So why did we conclude that network science would improve teaching and learning? For the following reasons.
* It makes science topics more real. As they explore natural phenomena, these children work the way scientists do, with colleagues, real data, primary sources, and physical materials.
* It lends an immediacy both to data sharing and the questions kids ask. These projects link the work of the classroom with the real world of science as students use e-mail to interact not only with one another but also with environmental or government agencies. In exploring the meaning of their data, students pose to experts the questions that scientists ask. Connections with the appropriate environmental or government agency are just keystrokes away.
* Students make valid contributions to scientific research, and their notion of research expands. Each of these three projects could have been done by a single teacher with one class, but such a small sampling would undermine the validity of the data. When many classrooms are linked, the larger data sample gives a more realistic picture of, for instance, the bat population.
* Students learn that data drive the hypothesis. In order to answer a scientific question, they gather information, analyze and synthesize it, and then share it electronically with other classes and interested groups across the region. Through the e-mail they send and receive, they collect data about weather and wind conditions. They learn about different areas--geography, population, industry, number and types of roads, vegetation, and bodies of water. Once the students have classified and analyzed the data from all participants, they look for patterns and trends and send their findings and conclusions to all other participants.
* Students learn that science really involves questions, not answers, and that there can be many answers to one question. They, as much as their teacher, determine additional inquiry and experimentation.
* Students use technology across curriculum areas. Though centered in science, these projects enlist the tools of social studies, mathematics, and the language arts.
* This process offers many opportunities for dialogue among students and between teachers and students, as well as occasions for ascertaining how well students understand essential concepts.
LINKING DISCIPLINES In working on these projects, my 3rd graders at Bedford Memorial School have progressed not only in scientific data collection and analysis but also in geography, reading, writing (letters and reports), and math (multiplication, averaging, decimals, and fractions). They have acquired skills in measurement, use of models, map reading, and graphing, and have learned about temperature and cause and effect.
In Batnet, for example, they looked at maps of the towns whose students corresponded with us to find out whether certain geographical features could account for a higher or lower bat count. My students also correlated data across the towns with the number of researchers and created the Bats Per Spotter (BPS) Index to more accurately compare bat populations. This prompted the creation of a list of variables that could account for anomalies in the counts.
Because my 3rd graders had to transmit the data via computer, they had to synthesize their class's findings--totaling bat counts, converting Fahrenheit to Celsius, and averaging temperatures and wind speeds. These skills often exceeded their grade level curriculum, but they were necessary to the project. Children also had to deal with data overload when the findings of their partner classes flooded in, and they had to find a way to organize the data. In addition, they faced technical problems, as when fire drills interfered with transmissions and networks went down. But these problems only underscored the reality of life as a scientist.
NOT JUST CHILD'S PLAY Students collected the data on bats to determine the health of the environment in part of our state. The data might be the basis for future decisions affecting wildlife, natural resources, and humans. As they shared the information with other classes and environmental agencies, they realized that not seeing any bats was as important as seeing some--a lesson in the importance of data integrity.
By counting birds or other populations, they could examine the repercussions of human interactions with the environment. A declining species may indicate a pollutant in the food chain that inhibits reproduction. Bats, for instance, feed on some insects that breed in ponds affected by acid rain and road salt. How long will it take before the pond no longer supports insect life and thus has an impact on the survival of bat colonies?
Exploring the different trees in an area brings up questions of how these trees are suited to this environment; why certain types are found in one area and not another; why one tree has leaves and another, needles; and what the shape of the branches or the root system has to do with the environment or climate. As a monitor of classrooms involved in the Birdnet and Treenet projects, I found students asking whether soil moisture is a factor in tree size or if conifers grow faster than deciduous trees. They entered their bird counts on spreadsheets and wondered about the connection between food availability and population.
Network science has expanded these children's view of science, technology, and the world. Telecommunications has given them an opportunity to learn about science by becoming active research scientists and to discuss the ways in which telecommunications has become an important tool for scientists. Beyond that, telecommunications has helped these children begin to understand that they are part of a larger community and that their actions have an impact beyond their classrooms or towns.
Before they could transmit their data, students had to synthesize their findings, total bat counts, convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, and average temperatures and wind speeds.
AUTHOR: Diane Lonergan
Diane Lonergan teaches 3rd grade at Bedford Memorial School in Bedford, New Hampshire. She can be reached at 7 Kyle Rd., Merrimack, NH 03054 (e-mail: email@example.com).
SOURCE: Educational Leadership v55 p34-6 November '97 The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission.WBN: 9730503461008