Middle school students blitz with scientists, iPads and Noah

Published by The Prince George’s Sentinel

bio1Charles Carroll Middle School students blitzed in the schoolyard, but they were looking for organisms outside the quarterback species after the school bell rang on Wednesday.

Partnered with the Verizon Foundation, National Geographic and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the middle school hosted its first BioBlitz where students worked with scientists scanning the area for different plants and animals and used iPads and mobile applications that identified each living species.

“If it’s alive, we’re going to find it,” seventh-grade science teacher Angelia Joy Long said, arming her students with iPads, buckets, microscopes, nets, ice cube trays and petri dishes to prepare for the hands-on science event.

“What we’re really doing is – okay this is going to sound really geeky, really hippie-style, but we’re going to get one with the nature,” she explained to the line of students. “It’s like just laying down, listening to Mother Earth.”bio2

Students photographed plants and animals, and then uploaded the photos to the “Charles Carroll Schoolyard BioBlitz mission,” with the AAAS-launched Project Noah application that identified each tree, plant, aquatic, land and air species.

While Long said she thinks “kids don’t play (or explore nature) outside anymore,” she embraces the digital devices that often “occupy” students’ time. She has students use mobile technology – a byproduct of the $40,000 grant the school received in 2012 as part of the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program – daily in her classroom.

“It keeps them more engaged,” she said. “It has opened up a whole new world. My kids can learn more now because they have the whole world sitting in front of them.”

“They can take a picture of a leaf on their tree, and it (Project Noah) will help identify the tree. These kids are so urban; they don’t know the names of things,” Long said.

eli“What are those called?” eighth grader Elyjah Adams asked as he bent down pointing to a plant.

“Sour grass or oxalis,” conservation biologist Marc Imlay answered.

“Because I eat it all the time,” Adams said. “It kind of tastes like a sour gum drop.”

Seventh-grade student Ala Hussen, 12, tasted the sour grass she just learned about for the first time.

“That is so true. It’s sour like a sour gum drop,” she said. “I’m going to eat this more often.”

Seventh-grade student and aspiring medical professional Precious Adetayo, 12, stood in the stream with pink-and-black water shoes examining crayfish. “I thought it was just debris,” she admitted.

Verizon Program Manager Kristin Townsend stressed the BioBlitz gives students the opportunity to “see themselves as scientists” and “doing science.”

For University of Maryland junior biology student Dejen Menges, 19, the BioBlitz offers a way to extend involvement.

“We need, sort of, everyone’s support to make something like this work, to track a population and take inventory and things like that, so it’s really a community thing. It’s not just a scientist thing,” said Menges, who works in a lab with featured BioBlitz entomologist Sam Droege.bio3

Scientists explained the three kingdoms of life, differences between non-native and native plants, roles of an entomologist and the habits of bees. Students found organisms that ranged from English ivy to poison ivy, bullfrogs to leeches, damselflies to deer ticks and pouch snails to peck’s skipper butterflies.

A healthy amount of biodiversity means a healthy ecosystem, Sean O’Connor said.

“People don’t realize how much biodiversity there is to explore even in a suburban area like New Carrollton,” he said. “In many communities, people just don’t have an understanding of what is there. And I think to really protect our natural resources is to first understand them.”

Sponsored by National Park Service and National Biological Service, the first BioBlitz was hosted in 1996 at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C., according to National Geographic’s website. Although the heavily-industrialized area was initially considered to “have very little biological diversity,” scientists counted more than 900 species. Since 1996, hundreds of BioBlitz events have been conducted worldwide.

bio4“BioBlitz doesn’t have to be a grand event that happens in a national park,” O’Connor said. “There’s a lot of biodiversity to explore even in local communities and local parks and the schoolyards.”

In less than three hours, New Carrollton students tallied more than 47 unique species on the schoolyard grounds, including one fungus, two mammals, nine birds, 16 invertebrate and 20 plants, according to the group’s preliminary count.

While the primary goal is a biological census, the schoolyard BioBlitz aimed to teach students more than number crunching and classification skills.

“For these kids, mostly, they’ve never done anything like this before ever. They’re not stream kids who get down in the water and really find things, so they’re (developing) observational skills,” Long said.

National Geographic Program Manager Sean O’Connor said that understanding biodiversity “can really inspire” young people to “get excited about science” and “become future stewards of their communities.”

natgeoWhen asked if she thought students would remember the experience more than what species they found, National Geographic Program Manager Elena Takaki did not hesitate.

“Oh absolutely. And I don’t care that they remember that they found a caddisfly or a blackfly. I hope they remember they had a good time learning about their school environment with their peers,” she said.

“I hope that when kids walk away that they have a new appreciation for their school grounds, that maybe it’s in passing, where they talk to a friend and say, ‘hey I was in that stream and we found crayfish and it was really neat.’”

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