Using Coverboards to Explore Biodiversity on School Grounds
By Catherine E. Matthews, Katie Singleton, Manda M. Jackson, Cory A. Bentley, and Heidi Carlone
One of the most important things that a science teacher can do is expose students to various scientific fields of study, careers in science, and the work that scientists do. In particular, field science offers unique opportunities for youth and educators to expand traditional laboratory school science, such as (a) positioning youth as knowledge builders because they are emotionally and intellectually involved in the data collection; (b) experiencing science as a collective, rather than as a competitive endeavor; and (c) offering opportunities to engage science with wonder and awe (Stroupe and Carlone 2021). In this article, we discuss the use of coverboards as a vehicle for introducing middle schoolers to herpetology and invertebrate zoology.
Coverboards are pieces of untreated plywood and/or tin that are laid down to provide artificial habitat for any creatures that choose to move in or visit or come to the surface. You may already have some coverboards around your school or in a nearby park. Downed logs, railroad ties, wooden boards, pieces of metal or slate, bricks or cinder blocks, cardboard or tarps all serve the same purpose as coverboards. You have probably been surprised by animals such as pill bugs, earthworms, millipedes, and slugs that have inadvertently surprised you as you have moved these unintended coverboards. Coverboards are a tool used by herpetologists to monitor for the presence and abundance of reptiles and amphibians but can also serve as a vehicle for inquiry projects.
One of the simplest, yet impactful, coverboard projects that middle school teachers can involve their students in is the collection of information about the biodiversity on their school grounds. The youth we have worked with find great value in learning about “hidden” wildlife in common places. Often, these unexpected finds shift their perspectives about animals they deem “gross” or “scary.” A surprise slug or snail underneath a coverboard may prompt new wonderings about why it is there, what it needs to survive, and what environmental conditions might threaten its survival.
We recommend placing the coverboards in a pattern called a transect (a straight line that crosses habitat). Transects allow individuals to collect data in a systematic way, as the number of organisms of each species can be observed and recorded at regular intervals. A transect might run from a road downhill to a forested area, or it might be at different distances from bodies of water. Collecting data in varying habitats allows you to begin to determine habitat preferences of different species of animals found underneath coverboards, as the number of organisms of each species along a transect can be observed and recorded at regular intervals. Transects can be various lengths, but in our work, we use eight pieces of plywood and two pieces of tin, spaced 10’ apart per transect (see Figure 1).
We recommend creating a transect by cutting eight pieces of (¾”) untreated plywood sheets into squares measuring 4’ × 4’ and two pieces of roofing tin measuring 2’ × 4’. Four of the pieces of plywood can be laid down 10’ apart, followed by a piece of tin, then four more pieces of plywood and a second piece of tin. If the transect includes water such as a stream, ditch, or retention pond, use PVC pipe to attract treefrogs, which will climb into the pipes. Obtain a 5’ section of PVC pipe that is 1.5” to 2” in diameter. Make an approximate 6” cut along one end of the PVC pipe to create a point (see Figure 2), then insert the PVC pipe vertically into soil near the tin pieces (see Figure 3). Plywood, roofing tin, and PVC pipe can all be purchased at hardware and big-box home improvement stores.
Because plywood can be expensive, we suggest asking building supply stores for warped boards or visiting building sites to see if they will give you scrap lumber. In lieu of plywood, you can use large refrigerator-sized cardboard boxes and cut these to size with a box cutter or utility knife. Some environmental education centers are using tree cookies (slices of trees) in place of plywood.
It is best to place the coverboards a couple of months before you want to conduct studies such as organisms’ preferences for temperature, material (wood or tin), and/or soil moisture content. The coverboards will quickly become inhabited by invertebrates such as pill bugs, millipedes, centipedes, and spiders, followed by vertebrates like reptiles (snakes and lizards), amphibians (frogs and salamanders), and mammals (shrews and mice). Studying the succession of animals offers great opportunities for scientific investigation.
This project was part of a virtual after-school program in spring 2021 funded by the National Science Foundation (see Acknowledgments). Two faculty members (Matthews and Carlone) and five middle school STEM teachers (Bentley, Jackson, Singleton, and two other teachers) worked together to pilot a coverboard project for middle school students in after-school STEM clubs at three different middle schools.The teachers learned to use coverboard protocols on Zoom meetings, and as a part of these Zoom meetings, they investigated an active coverboard transect at Matthews’s home. Because teachers were new to the Coverboards Project, they created short transects with 2’ × 2’ coverboards at their homes and schools. To assist teachers in identifying organisms found under coverboards, Matthews prepared and shared a guide to organisms that she had observed under her coverboard transects over the past two decades: What Lies Beneath: Coverboards in the North Carolina Piedmont (Matthews 2021).
To further prepare teachers, the faculty and trained middle school teachers set up a coverboard transect at a state park in an open area between a river and an eastern deciduous forest. This transect ran from east to west, with the eastern coverboards lying close to a wetland. Placing the transect from east to west allowed the sun to hit the boards at different times of day, providing variations in soil temperatures under the boards. This allowed us to ask questions such as, “Are more invertebrates found under coverboards that are warmer or coverboards that are cooler?” and “How far from the wetland can salamanders be found under coverboards?” Several weeks after placing our coverboard transect, 30 middle school teachers and environmental educators were invited to a two-day overnight workshop at the state park for the purpose of exploring ecological protocols, including coverboards. In three 90-minute sessions over two days, small groups of teachers were led by two of our project teachers (Singleton and Jackson) to learn about the Coverboards Project by learning protocols in the field. Teachers talked about the purpose of coverboards, how to establish a transect on school grounds and nature centers, how to properly check the coverboards, and how to collect and record data including physical parameters (e.g., temperature, soil humidity).
Middle school students from after-school STEM clubs at three different schools were introduced to the Coverboards Project via Zoom (due to COVID protocols at schools). Over six weeks, students had weekly opportunities to watch teachers and faculty members lift their coverboards at homes and schools and examine/identify the organisms found under the coverboards.
To support the students in collecting data observed, the science teachers used Google Slides to create digital notebooks, which were then shared with each student individually. This allowed us to check students’ progress as well as give students a place to share photos and drawings (see Figure 4). Students were expected to record their observations and their questions as well as their wonderings each week. They were also expected to predict how findings under coverboards might change from week to week, and they were asked to record their predictions about what might be under coverboards the next week when we checked. Because this was a pilot project for students in an after-school STEM club, the notebooks were assessed informally. The notebooks were not differentiated, but our line of questioning/reaffirming/redirecting was easily tailored to individual students. The students were also provided with a link to a Google Form so they could enter data collected from their observations. Many students recorded data in a paper journal during the project, then transferred that data to the Google Form so we could compare group data.
Completing a coverboard project was rewarding for the teachers because it was long term, involved data collection and analysis, included observing live animals, and made science more authentic for their students. During the six-week project, teachers and faculty members presented information about coverboards and organisms that used coverboards via Zoom calls. Students had lots of time to ask questions about the project and clarify their understandings. Some students drew conclusions early about coverboard placement. Karen (all student names are pseudonyms) wondered about whether more animals would be under a coverboard with moist soil versus a coverboard with dry soil. Mariah was excited about this project; however, when she saw the presentation on common organisms found under coverboards, she discovered that animals she disliked (spiders) might be found under coverboards. Once the teachers explained that we would identify the spiders and assured her that we all liked spiders, she regained her enthusiasm for the project. In an evaluation of the project, participants said, “I love to investigate and ask a lot of questions” and “[I felt like a conservationist because] I was caring for the organisms.”
In discussing coverboards with students, teachers can ask students to calculate the perimeter of their boards to determine whether they fit in specific areas of the school grounds. Students can also calculate areas of the boards and could then compute biodiversity estimates (e.g., numbers of each organism per square foot of coverboard). Students can also gain experience collecting and recording soil and ambient air temperatures under and around coverboards, as well as measuring the amount of precipitation that fell at the site of the coverboard. These data are important as students determine and then begin to predict what organisms might be found under coverboards given the weather patterns at specific times of the year.
There are many other studies that could be conducted with coverboards. Students could conduct a biodiversity study to determine what organisms move under the coverboards, how long they stay, and what they do (i.e., are they active, awake, sleeping, reproducing, and/or feeding). Students can also study succession patterns (i.e., what organisms move in first, how long do they stay, and what organisms replace them). Teachers may want to use our 5-E lesson plan, which provides details for studying relationships between air and soil temperatures, soil moisture levels, and the organisms found under coverboards.
Although some nature centers, land conservation areas, and local/state parks have coverboard transects, most students have not had an opportunity to explore a coverboard transect. Be sure to follow the appropriate safety protocols as you begin your coverboard project. We suggest that you do the following:
Your coverboard transect will last for several years before the plywood decomposes and needs to be replaced. Students can ask their own questions that lead to science fair projects, and over time, teachers and students will have a long-term database to use in their data analyses.
It is imperative that teachers familiarize themselves with their local environment so that they can best inform students and parents about potential risks with the coverboards project. Teachers may want to consult with their state herpetological society or state natural history museum for suggestions with respect to conducting the coverboard project.
Depending on your location, venomous organisms such as snakes, centipedes, scorpions, and black widow spiders can all be found under or near coverboards. If you live in an area where there is any chance of a venomous snake encounter, it is critical that you have training in venomous snake identification. We also recommend invertebrate identification training, as you are much more likely to encounter these animals than vertebrates. Additionally, both toads and salamanders secrete toxins through their skins (which can cause skin irritation if handled but potentially dangerous issues if these animals are eaten).
In addition to the possibility of venomous or poisonous organisms, poison ivy can grow near coverboards and ticks can live in vegetation surrounding coverboards. It is strongly advised to wear long pants tucked into socks, closed-toed shoes, a long-sleeved shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat to help protect against these common concerns in the out-of-doors.
Teachers can work together, as we did at one school, to become more comfortable with the coverboards project. Alternatively, to gain confidence and become more knowledgeable about the various organisms that can be found under coverboards, teachers could reach out to a natural resources professional and ask them to become a partner on this project. To develop their expertise, teachers who are new to coverboard explorations can start with a small (2’ × 2’) board or two.
Teachers should also prepare for coverboard projects by examining the document NSTA Field Trip Safety (see Online Resources). This document is a four-page summary of issues that teachers need to address when taking students on a field trip (defined as outside, on campus or off). The relevant suggestions for teachers who develop a coverboard project include the following recommendations:
The fascinating world of coverboards engages students through participation in authentic field work. Coverboards are inexpensive, are easy to monitor, and can become a lifetime hobby (like bird watching!). In our opinion, every teacher and student should have some coverboards.
We thank Whit Gibbons for his support and recommendations on this article; Jeff Hall, Partners in Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources, who has supported our work in herpetology education at UNCG since its inception; and Marti Canipe, associate professor at Northern Arizona State University, who provided us with a Google slide template for digital notebooks. This material is partially based on work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Grant No. 1657194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.
Amphibians and reptiles of North Carolina—https://herpsofnc.org
Discover invertebrates with coverboards—https://bit.ly/3Opb3R3
Coverboards: large snakes—https://bit.ly/3gmHX8q
Cardboard coverboard discover: Dekay’s brown snakes—https://bit.ly/3GE1MTo
North Carolina Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation—https://ncparc.org/
Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation—https://parcplace.org
NSTA Field Trip Safety—https://bit.ly/3UCU0g1
Buhlmann, K., T. Tuberville, W. Gibbons, and J.W. Gibbons. 2008. Turtles of the southeast. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Dorcas, M.E., J.W. Gibbons, and W. Gibbons. 2008. Frogs & toads of the southeast. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Gibbons, W. 2013. Their blood runs cold: Adventures with reptiles and amphibians. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
Gibbons, W., and A.R. Gibbons. 2017. Ecoviews too: Ecology for all seasons. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
Gibbons, W., J. Greene, and T. Mills. 2009. Lizards and crocodilians of the Southeast. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Gibbons, W., R. Haynes, and J.L. Thomas. 1990. Poisonous plants and venomous animals of Alabama and adjoining states. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
Gibbons, W., and E.P. Odum. 2010. Keeping all the pieces: Perspectives on natural history and the environment. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Mitchell, J.C., J.W. Gibbons, and W. Gibbons. 2010. Salamanders of the Southeast. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Tietje, W.D. and J.K. Vreeland. 1997. The use of plywood coverboards to sample herpetofauna in a California Oak woodland. Transactions of the Western Section of the Wildlife Society 33: 67–74.
Tomasek, T.M., C.E. Matthews, and J. Hall. 2005. What’s slithering around on your school grounds? Transforming student awareness of reptile & amphibian diversity. The American Biology Teacher 67 (7): 419–425.
Catherine E. Matthews (email@example.com) is professor emerita of science/environmental education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and continues to be involved in Outdoor Science Education activities. Katie Singleton is a seventh-grade science teacher at Reidsville Middle School in Rockingham County, NC. Manda M. Jackson is an eighth-grade science teacher at Reidsville Middle School in Rockingham County, NC, and a graduate student at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Cory A. Bentley is an eighth-grade science and social studies teacher at Trinity Middle School in Randolph County, NC. Heidi B. Carlone is the Katherine Johnson Chair of Science Education at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University in Memphis, Tennessee.
Matthews, C. 2021. What lies beneath: Coverboards in the North Carolina Piedmont [available from the author via email request: firstname.lastname@example.org]
Stroupe, D., and H.B. Carlone. 2022. Leaving the laboratory: Using field science to disrupt and expand historically enduring narratives of science teaching and learning. Science & Education 31 (4): 893–921.
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