Schoolyard Species

Partners in Fieldwork teacher training workshop at Lincoln Park Zoo

Chicago high school teachers participating in the zoo’s Partners in Fieldwork program received training last fall on setting up camera traps to monitor wildlife at their school field sites.

High School Gets Wild in the Zoo’s Partners in Fieldwork Program

“So far, thanks to this program, I’ve come to realize there are more than sparrows, cardinals, geese and crows in Chicago. I wasn’t aware of all the different types of birds that live here.”

So says one local high schooler who—thanks to an innovative zoo education program—now knows urban areas are diverse ecosystems teeming with more species than just homo sapiens.

Such knowledge is empowering—even more so when it’s applied to research data used by professional scientists.

Partners in Fieldwork makes that improbable connection possible. The education program, launched in fall 2013 by the Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration, links teens with field biologists at the zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute (UWI). Throughout the school year students contribute data about wildlife species observed at field sites on school grounds to UWI’s ongoing biodiversity monitoring project that encompasses vast swaths of the Chicago metro area.

“Even the most well-intentioned teachers and dynamic schools face the reality that they don’t have partnerships with practicing scientists,” says Hurvis Center Senior Director Leah Melber, Ph.D. “This program is a way for us to add that piece and work together.”

Hurvis Center staff collaborated with UWI scientists to design the program’s three main components: monitoring wildlife with motion-triggered cameras, surveying bird species along point-count locations and detecting bat species with specialized acoustic devices that record echolocation calls. Teachers further shape the process by tailoring activities to complement their curricula.

“It’s what they make of it,” says Hurvis Center Education Manager Kyle Soller of the program’s built-in flexibility. “We’re working with teachers coming from different backgrounds—environmental science, biology, ecology. Those are easy fits. But we’ve also got a physics teacher who’s putting her own spin on the research process by having kids do things like analyze the flight paths of birds they observe.”

Partners in Fieldwork camera trap image of fox squirrel

A Partners in Fieldwork class at Manley Career Academy High School collected this photo of a fox squirrel from their camera trap.

The five Chicago high schools initiating the program are located in very different settings spread across the city: Taft and Amundsen high schools on the northwest side; Manley Career Academy High School and Providence St. Mel School on the west side; and George Washington High School on the south side.

Variations in urban density and proximity to green space should elicit interesting differences in observed wildlife. Amundsen’s grounds, for instance, include a restored nature area filled with native plants. Providence St. Mel and Manley are more hemmed in by buildings but also lie near Garfield and Douglas Parks. George Washington is situated in the far southeast corner of the city near industrialized wetlands, lakes, abandoned railroad staging areas and open woods.

“The cool thing from our perspective about working with the schools is it’s habitat we haven’t been able to study yet,” says UWI Director Seth Magle, Ph.D. “Anywhere in the city with green space is attractive to a number of species, and we’ve done a pretty good job of characterizing parks, forest preserves, cemeteries and places like that. But school grounds are an area where we don’t really have any information yet. We’re excited to partner with the Hurvis Center to fill in that gap in our knowledge.”

Magle and UWI’s Coordinator of Wildlife Management Mason Fidino provide expert advice to Partners in Fieldwork’s primary coordinator, Hurvis Center Youth Research Facilitator Matthew Mulligan, who also has a background in natural resources and environmental sciences.

At teacher workshops held at the zoo in the fall, Mulligan showed teachers how to install camera traps on tree trunks, position scented lures nearby and collect digital images of any animals they would be photographing at night. Teachers also learned to conduct bird surveys by counting species at set points and time intervals. Mulligan visits each school four times throughout the school year and facilitates field trips at the zoo. A family day will be held at the end of the school year, giving students an opportunity to showcase their findings.

Partners in Fieldwork camera trap photo of Virginia opossum

A Virginia opossum travels at night near a camera trap located at George Washington High School on the far southeast side of Chicago.

Teachers are provided with iPads and wildlife monitoring apps. Classes are also equipped with binoculars, data sheets and timers for bird survey point counts.

“We created shared Google forms so students can record their data and we can retrieve it,” says Mulligan. “Even though data collection isn’t too glamorous, it’s really important for scientific research. We tell them they are scientists and they’re an important station in this huge network that’s been set up by UWI. It gives them a sense of ownership that’s a neat additional factor for this program.”

Camera trap data collected by the students gets funneled directly into UWI’s biodiversity database. This extensive research may one day help urban planners design built environments that accommodate the needs of different species and mitigate human-wildlife conflict. Fidino, who recently conducted a bird survey in Lincoln Park to assess a century’s worth of urbanization on bird diversity, is examining ways in which the schools’ bird-monitoring data can be used. The bat-monitoring devices—one for each school—will be set up later this spring to detect bat species as they emerge from hibernation.

There's a more immediate benefit too, though: getting city kids to think about their hometown in an entirely new way.

“A lot of city dwellers don’t realize they live in an ecosystem,” says Magle. “They hear the word and think of somewhere like the Serengeti or the Australian Outback. Look up anywhere in the city, though, and you’re going to see birds. There are predators and prey, species that have to find food and shelter and mates. Even in the most urban areas we live in systems governed by these rules of nature.”

The abundant variety of Chicago’s wildlife—from fox squirrels to striped skunks, opossums to coyotes, sparrows to geese—has kindled the curiosity of these budding scientists.

“A lot of these kids didn’t even know these animals existed until they started catching them off camera traps,” says Mulligan. “It’s really cool to see that ‘Aha!’ moment.”


By Craig Keller • Published January 8, 2014

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