Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Teaching Resources for Natural History Field and Lab Courses Through Distance Learning

I am a mammal ecologist, and teach a variety of biology, ecology, and natural resources courses.   I have started to assemble resources for how to transition these traditionally, fundamentally in-person lessons, to online learning.  Although these are widely crucial for learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also valuable for being inclusive to those with varying ability to go out in the field.  I'm grateful for any additional resource you would like to add.

Field Journal Blog to replace Field Notebook -   
  • Have students create a blog post (or entire blog, depending on the assignment) with all the same information that they would normally include in a field notebook, slight modification to Grinellian.  Blogger offers free accounts, and they can be set to private (shared only with prof) or public, per student preference.  Do the grading by reviewing blog instead of physical notebooks.  Or just via Google Docs - that might be easier to use the existing tech.  Nature Illustrator John Muir Laws made his book "How to Teach Nature Journaling" freely available to educators as a PDF download.  
Virtual Google Street View Tour to replace Field Trip - 

  • Good Street view is a feature that allows you to get a cars eye view of just about anywhere with a road in the U.S.  There are roads driving through every national park, every habitat type etc.  I've actually had to do this class once before (wildfire smoke closures on field trip day), and it was a surprising success.  In 6 hours we visited places with interesting and unique habitats all over the United States, and taught students to recognize and identify different natural communities.  I just shared my internet browsers, showing Google Maps on Streetview mode, over a Zoom lecture.  

  • I put together a Google My Map of different habitat types around UC Davis for a course a couple of years ago.  This could be a decent starting point for a virtual tour.            
  • Many national parks offer virtual tours as well.  
Geocaching to Replace Navigation - 
  • Geocaching is a hobby, and requires navigation to coordinates.  There is a whole community who hid caches and post coordinates and hints to find them, and there are nearby geocaches nearly everywhere.  Smartphones have built in GPS, and those function similar to Garmins/Trible (just lower precision)  But that brings people outside, possibly into public or unsupervised in natural areas - so not always appropriate.  
Behavioral Field Studies - 
  • Most Zoos have nest cams or animal cams in many of their exhibits.  There are also eagle cams and other nest cams made public in many natural areas.  These are live time, and you can still have the student practice behavior observation methods of wild animals (vs. their cat or goldfish).  
 Species Accumulation Curve (Time and Space)-
  • Time: Have students go out and identify all of the species in their yard, and write the time next to the identification, then plot the total number of species along the Y-axis and the time passed from the start of survey on the x-axis.  This shows that the more time spent during a survey, the more species identified.   
  • Space: If they have access to somewhere they can safely walk, have them do a transect where they identify every new species for a set distance.  Plot total number of species identified every set distance. See how far they have to walk before the species accumulation curve levels off. 
Plant Sampling - 
  • Count and compare the plant species in plot of a manicured garden and plot of a natural or unmaintained area.  Can use the results to calculate one of the biodiversity indices.  To create a quadrat with items on hand, they can use a pencil in the dirt and a shoelace, or a hoola hoop.   Optional additional topics, consider the percentage of non-native vs. native species.  
  • Conduct a tree census of their yard or street.  Determine species (iNaturalist can help), take DBH, record coordinates.  Then maybe use something like like i-Tree Design to calculate the environmental benefits of those trees.  
  • Use the Point-Centered Quarter Sampling Method to map yard/street trees.  Maybe adapt to shrubs just for the practice?  Methodology example available here (needs modification for suburban/urban landscapes).  
  • Track Phenology.  The National Phenology Network -  - has a lot of teaching resources, and citizen science projects that can be transitioned to online labs.  Including Nature's Notebook, with predesigned curricula.   

Field Sampling, Taxonomy Labs, Analysis - 
  • The American Society of Mammalogists crowdsourced teaching resources from among their members.  These cover both taxonomy labs and field course suggestions.  The document summarizing their suggestions is a wonderful resource, even including full lesson plans, is available here - 
  • Participate in Cornell's Feeder Watch Citizen Science program (comes with a "Research Kit" the students can use).  
  • Participate in one of the Zooniverse research projects by respected organization.  These are designed to facilitate citizen participation in real research.  Has projects in many categories, including Nature, Biology.  Some tasks include identification of species on camera traps.  
Natural Resource Data Analysis - 
  • Use an existing publicly available database from iNaturalist, eBird, MoveBankEDDIE (datasets and teaching modules), or NEON.  
  • Data Nuggets - "Data Nuggets are free classroom activities, co-designed by scientists and teachers. When using Data Nuggets students are provided with the details of authentic science research projects, and then get to work through an activity that gives them practice looking for patterns and developing explanations about natural phenomena using the scientific data from the study."
Guest Speakers to replace Field Practice - 
  • A panel of guest speakers (via Zoom) of wildlife researchers, citizen science program managers, land managers.  The professionals are going to share a bit about the work they do, and the logistical challenges to that work and how they manage it. Talking in detail about the parts of doing the fieldwork that usually get glossed over in conference presentations.  Switching direct experiential learning of fieldwork to indirect experience through storytelling. The assignments are moving from field reports, to live time questions (which they post to the discussion board so I can grade participation), applying course material to the guest speaker topic.  
Equipment Substitutions-

  • GPS - Smartphones generally have compass and GPS apps available for free.  The GPS apps function similar to a Garmin, and in an area with WiFi, have comparable accuracy.  
  • DBH Tape - Sewing Tape/Tailor's Measure + Math
Other Resources -

  • Extensive Workbook of Ecology and Environmental Science Resources, from Lectures to Labs -

I will update this as I get additional ideas/resources.

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