Year-after-year, professors of natural history courses send their students rambling through woods, roadsides and countrysides armed with little more than a field journal and penknife in search of plants, animals, and the reclusive “A” grade on their field projects. At semester’s end, these journals, specimens and their associated data have traditionally then been sent home with the students or stored in dusty, old specimen cabinets and thus relegated to obscurity. A new report in the “American Biology Teacher,” however, demonstrates that these same students, when armed with Web-enabled laptops or smartphones, can not only earn their “A” but could also be a boon to regional and global efforts to document and conserve biodiversity. Following a seven year study on students’ use of the Web app NatureAtlas.org to log observations for their plant collection projects, professors at Millersville University of Pennsylvania showed that their undergraduates contributed 1,537 new and original locality records for 305 species, of which 31 were new state or county records (i.e. records of species not previously known from a state or county). More than two-thirds of these new state or county records were for exotic or invasive species, a finding that helps to quantify the threat that such non-native and invasive species pose to native flora and fauna. In short, students entered the class focused primarily on learning field techniques and earning a passing grade, but they left the class have made new discoveries about their changing biota and the rapidly advancing threat of exotic and invasive species.
The study and conservation of biodiversity requires accurate and precise knowledge of the composition and distribution of flora and fauna, and “that’s the type of data students can generate during their coursework,” says Dr. Christopher Hardy, the study’s lead-author. Hardy adds that “the key ingredient for the high scientific value of student-generated data in this study was the use of a Web-enabled tool like NatureAtlas, which we developed here at Millersville to immediately capture and share student data on the World Wide Web where it could then inform others.” Another key ingredient, says Hardy, is that “students are a highly motivated lot because they want to learn and their grade depends on it.” While there are a variety of similar Web-based tools out there to choose from, says Hardy, college professors do not yet seem to be integrating their use with the time-honored course field projects on a large scale. Dr. Nazli Hardy, the study’s co-author, adds that “students are certainly now using their phones to capture photos and to help identify their species, but the far majority of those students are still not being asked to log and share their data using widely available tools like NatureAtlas or similar tools including iNaturalist and eBird.” Both authors hope that this research will spur an increased use of such tools in the classroom or on course-related field activities.
Article Citation: Hardy CR, NW Hardy. 2018. Adapting traditional field activities in natural history education to an emerging paradigm in biodiversity informatics. American Biology Teacher 80: 501-519.