I just returned from a participatory media workshop that I organized for a group of high school biology teachers at Washington University in St. Louis. They were there for the summer institute portion of a very special masters degree program called the Life Science for a Global Community, funded by the NSF. These 30 teachers will work together, over the next two years, to expand their science knowledge and improve the quality of their teaching in a program that combines face-to-face summer courses (at Wash U) with online courses, taken throughout the academic year. They are a wonderful group – very curious, quick to learn, and high energy.
The program’s director of professional development, Phyllis Balcerzak, invited me to organize a workshop for this year’s cohort on new media tools, as applied to teaching biology. I had two sessions with the teachers – the first was a hands-on afternoon to experiment with wikis, podcasts, photos, and video. The second was an optional hands-on workshop with the virtual world of Second Life, conducted with my colleague, Liz Dorland. As usual, when I do these workshops, I ended up learning more from the teachers than they learned from me.
I was so struck by their observations – what was easy, what was hard. Better ways to do things. Creativity in the face of student (and parent) objections. Clever ways to use the new tools (one of the teachers works with deaf children and makes video – to show signing – content units). They took to the tools well but kept a healthy dose of skepticism in making decisions about what would work with their students and what was worth their time.
In order to get into this LSGC program, candidates have to submit a project that speaks to their creativity and teaching horse sense. One of the “students”, Brant Reif, a high school teacher from Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa showed me his projects and I just had to share it here. The project, The State of the Jaguar, is a lab investigation that examines the status of the jaguar in Central and South America, with the hope of preventing it from becoming an endangered species. He taped into existing data from the Wildlife Conservation Society to create a KMZ file (KMZ – or compressed keyhole mark-up language – is a file format used for displaying geographic data as an additional layer in an Earth browser, like Good Earth) for Google Earth and then wrote up a lab activity where students assess the distribution and status of the jaguar in several sites, current threats to the jaguar, identify priority areas for conversation, and then compare their recommendations for conservation areas with those of research scientists. Whoa. Call me impressed.
He walked me through the Google Earth layer (KMZ file) he created, zooming in to show key topographical features and to click on related photos. He created about 20 markers (from which the student could choose), that linked the actual data with images and cleverly crafted journal entries that made sense (from the data and the surrounding terrain/features) to give the students a sense of presence. For instance, you might click on a geographical site and read entries like, “Saw scat today…” or “Spotted a single jaguar near a farm…”.
In each Jaguar Conservation Unit (JCU), students are asked to estimate the percentage of the area threatened by a set of factors (habitat loss, hunting, human activity, insufficient prey, etc). To get a better estimate of the threats to each JCU, the students pool their data with data from two other students. When they’ve completed all the data tables, they use them to estimate the priority that each JCU should be granted. Assigning a “3″ if they feel it is low in need of conservation efforts, a “2″ for one in need of some conservation, and a “1″ if it is high need.
I asked Brant how the lab worked with his students and he explained that they loved it, but it took longer than he’d thought. The students didn’t read the directions and so wasted a lot of time figuring things out or failing to see important information (sound familiar?). Brant already had a plan for how he was going to address this next time (demo one JCU site in class and have the students just pick three to investigate, find new ways to make sure they read the directions).
There’s so much to love about this activity, it’s hard to know where to begin. First off, the clever and very specific use of a powerful tool. Google Earth has so much potential but it takes a carefully crafted investigation like this one (on a topic important enough to the course to be worth the effort) to harness it and make it relevant to the study of biology. By zooming around from location to location on the virtual Earth, Brant’s students got a sense for the enormous distances, the inaccessibility of the region, the topography, the land’s relationship to water, the proximity to major cities, and the conservation issues. The fact that he connected the investigation to real data gave his students a feeling for how we know what we know and the way scientists work. The students had to make important judgments and decisions – but they weren’t left hanging at the end – they had a real-life index with which to compare their decision making (at the conclusion, he asks them to explain any differences between the conservation ratings they’ve given and the actual ratings). I also liked the way that Brant mixed media types – in addition to Google Earth, he used photos, snippets of a National Geographic video, excel for the data tables, and text to create the master document. And there was a storyteller’s flare to the whole thing (which Brant modestly assigns to the National Geographic article he references). The student lab introduction reads like this….”At dusk one evening, deep in a Costa Rican forest, a young male jaguar rises from his sleep, stretches, and silently but determinedly leaves forever the place where he was born.”
A wonderful, shining example of new media tools used to improve teaching and learning. In the true spirit of the networking, Brant says he’ll be happy to share the lab and the KMZ file with biology teachers – you can contact me if you’d like them emailed to you.