LA Natural History Museum Turns Students into Citizen Scientists
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has a thriving Citizen Science program with over 200,000 people signed up to provide first-hand observations of wildlife. PC Magazine joined the team recently, as it did a workshop at a local school to train 9-year-olds to become scientific observers.
Esperanza Elementary School is undergoing a “re-wilding” of its once asphalt-heavy surroundings. Due to the efforts of Principal Brad Rumble, a once-depressing 100-foot-long stretch of unused playground hardscape has been cleared and is now bursting with California Golden Poppies. As Rumble is also a Los Angeles Audubon Society board member, it wasn’t a surprise to see one of his pupils correctly identify a mourning dove with assurance.
We started the workshop in the fourth-grade classroom, where the NHM team introduced themselves, and filled the kids in on their background and focus in science.
Lila Higgins has a degree in entomology. “That’s the scientific study of bugs,” she said, as the entire class wriggled in delight. Miguel Ordenana described his early work running a jaguar camera trap study in his native southwestern Nicaragua, and the excitement mounted. By the time Richard Smart and Molly Porter talked about Texas zoos and botanical experiments, it was clear that if you want to get small children interested in STEM, just show them a few cool scientists and tell them a good tale or two.
The team showed off the the iNaturalist app, which populates an ever-changing L.A. Nature Map. It’s used by scientists at the museum to track migratory patterns and rare sightings, as well as to keep a close watch on biodiversity and effects on animals and plants from the continuing drought. The map currently has over 50,000 observations documenting more than 4,000 species.
After a brief explanation on how iNaturalist works, including discussions on capturing accurate, clear images; applying context (tags, categories, locations and comments); and which components make for good wildlife habitat (food, water, space, shelter), it was time to break into three smaller groups and head outside for some field work. Children wielding clear-plastic vials stalked bugs, birds, and flowers, accompanied by the NHM Citizen Science team.
“We prefer to call this area a ‘Native Habitat’ as opposed to a garden,” Principal Rumble told PCMag, “as it’s here to serve a greater purpose, enhancing the biodiversity of an area that was once concrete and asphalt. It’s still a work in progress. In November we’ll be working with local high-school students and our students’ parents to undertake comprehensive planting, attracting local pollinators and native birds.”
Back in the classroom, the NHM team pulled up the L.A. Nature Map once more. At the start of the day, it displayed just six dots showing wildlife observations (posted earlier by NHM to jumpstart the workshop) on the school’s campus. Now, after an hour of fieldwork, there were 66 (happy gasps all around). Student explorers identified 10 species, including jumping spiders, crickets, ladybugs (several sorts), and many honeybees.
Kids went home with a link to show their parents their work: proof that they’d contributed to the museum’s scientific database.
In a nice twist, the NHM took advantage of a room full of engaged app users and did some quick market research. What did they like? What would they change?
One small boy said he would prefer to keep his identity and location secret. It turned out he was less worried about privacy issues and more about keeping a significant sighting of something really cool in his backyard to himself. The NHM team assured him that it’s easy to turn on and off privacy controls and gave us a quick demo. He seemed satisfied.
One of the girls had an excellent suggestion: She wanted the app to keep location locked during a session so she didn’t have to keep re-confirming it with the iPad’s built-in GPS. The team duly noted her contribution; all feedback is useful when you’re in emerging tech dev.
Before the workshop closed, the NHM team had a surprise for the class. With Principal Rumble’s permission, they’d set electronic motion-sensor-camera traps to identify wildlife that visited the school campus by night. The technology is part of a suite of tools that includes not only the iNaturalist app but also an ultrasonic bat-detector device that helps identify different species of bats that visit L.A. after dark.
Museums used to be “don’t touch” places. With the help of the Internet of Things, apps, sensors, and cloud-based sharing tools, they’re now opening up to their communities, making them feel welcome and involved in scientific discoveries. As the 9-year-olds greeted their parents after school, there were a lot of puffed-out chests and some nice straightening of glasses going on. A new generation of scientists might well emerge from this classroom.