At the Tallahassee Museum, a wildlife center in Tallahassee,Florida, a student uses an iPad with the Habitat Tracker digital journaling program installed on it to record data about the wildlife she is observing. (FSU/Bill Lax)
Wouldn’t it be great to have a way to ensure that when you take your students on a field trip, they are prepared to learn, they do learn, and they can build on what they learned when they return to class—and relate it to the nature of science?
Researchers at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, Florida, think so. They are developing a program called Habitat Tracker, a digital journaling system that employs online and mobile technologies to help fourth and fifth graders become active participants in the scientific inquiry process by gathering and analyzing data about natural habitats before, during, and after visits to the Tallahassee Museum, a 52-acre wildlife center. Teachers in the Leon County, Gadsden County, and Florida State University Schools districts, which are located near the museum, are piloting Habitat Tracker with their students. Funded by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the project will reach about 1,500 students from rural and urban elementary school districts over a three-year period.
“I was intrigued by the idea of using technology (iPads) and one of our local landmarks as a way of enhancing science inquiry,” says Susan Goracke, a fifth-grade science teacher at Canopy Oaks Elementary School in Tallahassee, who is piloting the program. “I was also looking for more teaching strategies [and] resources to use with my students,” she explains.
Students using Habitat Tracker first research wildlife on the project’s website at http://tracker.cci.fsu.edu and develop research questions with their classmates and students from other schools that use Habitat Tracker. At the museum, students use iPads to record data about the wildlife they see and share their observations with other students online. For example, one student using the prototype system wrote the following after observing bobcats:
“There was a bobcat eating meat. You could see the blood. It was gross. There was another bobcat pacing by the cage. A third bobcat is in the tree.”
After their field trip, students use the Habitat Tracker website to analyze data, answer their research questions, and share their results with other students. “I see Habitat Tracker as a way to support students’ science learning,” says Sherry Southerland, professor of education at FSU and one of the project’s co-principal investigators. “Ideally, students should be engaged in practices of science—and those practices include asking interesting questions about the world and designing ways to come to an answer. That’s a tall order in most elementary classrooms—and the Habitat Tracker project is a promising, engaging way of supporting this sort of instruction.”
“Habitat Tracker offers teachers a great deal of flexibility in how they implement the project in the classroom, and we’re seeing a wide range among our participating schools,” says Paul Marty, associate professor of FSU’s College of Communication and Information and Habitat Tracker’s principal investigator. “Some teachers are using Tracker primarily as a way to integrate nature-of-science activities into the museum visit (these teachers, for instance, are more likely to focus on the observations gathered by the students at the museum). Other teachers are making the Tracker project a cornerstone of an extensive series of units about the nature and practice of science (these teachers are more likely to involve their students in ongoing discussion of the online readings, journaling about their experiences, [and so on])…All these approaches are valid ways to participate.”
Goracke says that despite having “limited time” to incorporate Habitat Tracker in her classroom because “we have so many time-consuming mandates, which make ‘getting it all in’ a challenge at times,” she has “been able to integrate segments at a time into our mandatory curriculum. The flexibility of the Habitat Tracker program really helps out with the time constraints.”
Teachers participate in summer professional development sessions before piloting Habitat Tracker. “The goal is to prepare teachers to discuss nature of science throughout the academic year, with Habitat Tracker as an important—but not the only—piece of the puzzle,” Marty contends. Goracke agrees. “The training I participated in gave me resources [and] activities to use with my students [that] helped train them to think like scientists.”
“The important thing from our perspective is that students see that they are active participants in their own scientific education,” Marty emphasizes. “We are thrilled to see firsthand how involved the students become when gathering data at the museum, and analyzing the data they gathered—combined with data from all the other schools—back in the classroom.” While noting that project staff members are still evaluating the data on learning outcomes gathered during their direct observations of students at the museum and in the schools, he says, “What we’ve seen so far supports the hypothesis that the more involved teachers and students become with the project, the more students learn about the nature and practice of science.”
“The field experience was wonderful,” Goracke declares. “Even my more challenging students were 100% engaged, on task, and interested.” In addition, the program “helped rekindle my own love of learning and science. I feel like I do a better job with the inquiry aspect of science (questioning my students to get them thinking, guiding them to make discoveries without spoon-feeding them...) It really is an all-around splendid program!”
Marty says the project’s ultimate goal is to have “a national system that involves K–12 students in gathering and analyzing data about wildlife…a system where students in Tallahassee gathering data about the red wolves at the Tallahassee Museum, for example, can share and compare their data with students in Chicago gathering data about the gray wolves at the Brookfield Zoo.” To accomplish this, plans call for developing a “customizable version of the system that other museums or wildlife centers can implement in their own institutions with their own local schools” and “a centralized data repository to which all of these systems would contribute.”