| By Mitchell Squires |
With her hands cupped, Mia parts her fingers slightly and peers through the crack. She needs to part her hands just enough to see the creature, but not so far that it can fly away. “It’s so weird looking, what is it?” she asks, full of anticipation.
One of the clichés of modern teaching is that we need to get our students out of the box that is the four walls of the typical classroom. We often do this using technology, Skyping classes overseas, video-conferencing with museums interstate, and collaborating on class blogs around the world. We often forget the great delight it can be to get outside the classroom walls literally, not just digitally.
Getting students outside is a great way to engage them in building a relationship with nature. There is an ever-growing array of technology available in both hardware and software that can help students tune in to the natural world and gain insights in to life, the universe, and everything.
Looking at the creature cupped in Mia’s hands, it has a narrow, brown body about 2 cm long, six long legs and a pair of long, narrow wings. There are a number of yellow spots on the body where the legs join the torso. It resembles a giant mosquito but it doesn’t have the same piercing mouthparts. A stream of curious kids wanting to know what it is begins to grow around Mia. “I’ve never seen one of these before” she comments.
This is where the digital world meets the outside world in such a beautiful way. Within seconds I have my phone out, the NSW Field Guide App from the Australian Museum guiding my way. With over 950 species described, categorised and displayed in pictures, it is hard to find a native creature that isn’t there. Scanning through lists of categories, it’s not long until we think we have an I.D.
Invertebrates > Other Insects > Flies > and there it is – a Cranefly! The app is full of helpful and fascinating information that immediately satisfies student curiosity on one hand, but also leaves them wanting more. Is it dangerous? No. Is it native? Yes. What does it eat? Decaying bark and leaves, mostly. Where did it come from? Now there’s a question that will need some further investigation.
The questioning now moves on. “We know what it is now, but how many points is it worth?” a student now asks. Enter Questagame, a citizen science app that mixes Pokemon Go style location-based searching with real insects, birds, mammals and reptiles. The idea is simple – see a creature, take a photo or five, and send them off to Questagame. The payoff comes soon after, when Questagame experts identify your creature, send information about its life-cycle and habits, and award points based on the scarcity of the creature. The more rare the creature, the more points you get. Submissions are then added to the Atlas of Living Australia database.
Each year during National Science Week, Questagame runs a biodiversity challenge, offering prize money to the school or educational institution that scores the most points over the week. My students have revelled in this involvement, and taken it as a starting point to learn about all of the creatures in their local environments.
They track the interesting species that they see on a regular basis, making behavioural observations about them, like the family of plovers who seem to roam much further from their nests when it’s wet, or the ladybugs who hide in damp bark on very hot days, or even the praying mantises they track just to watch their swift front limbs as they strike their prey. The engagement is powerful as they learn to examine the world around them and the relationships of the creatures who inhabit it.
To stoke the fire of these interests even further, a good digital microscope goes a long way. A fascinating find is made even more exciting when you can see the details magnified 40-100x. Looking at the hairs on the leg of a roach, the saddlebags of pollen a bee carries with it, the tiny legs on a freshly hatched silkworm, all open students up to seeing the complex world around us through new eyes.
But it’s not just limited to wildlife. Technology is there to help students learn about other aspects of how the world works too, and beyond. Teaching primary students about astronomy can be difficult when classes all fall during the day time, with the beauty of the planets and stars hidden away by the bright light of the sun. This is where the technology can again lend a helping hand.
Using a free planetarium program such as Stellarium is an excellent starting point for junior astronomers. The software simulates the view of the skies from anywhere on Earth, and time becomes your plaything as you skip forward to the best viewing times. Just set your location and fast forward to that evening. You have a ready-made preview of that night’s skies.
Students love picking out bright or significant objects and looking at where they will be, only to go home and try to find them that night. Much discussion can be started by pointing out the movement of the planets compared to the Moon, or the conjunction of two of the brightest ‘stars’, which turn out to be the planets Jupiter and Venus. Students can learn where to look and what to look for through the day, then put their learning in to practice at night.
Taking this to the next level is when students want to share their observations. The easiest way to make this happen is through a simple series of photographs, but many students want to do more. A simple app such as Lapse-it allows students to set up their phones or tablets and track the movement of celestial bodies across the night sky. Many students are able to tell you that the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West, but it is not until they do this sort of viewing that this statement really gains meaning, as they realise that all of the stars, planets and the Moon follow a similar trajectory.
When they are out and about and observing the sky, there is plenty to help them get their bearings. The Planets app will show them which planets are above the horizon and visible in the night sky, and Skyview will act like an in-their-hand version of Stellarium, pointing out constellations, stars and planets using Augmented Reality against the night sky.
For those students who want to observe more in the night sky, a relatively inexpensive piece of hardware that can help them is the Galileoscope. A simple to use and relatively inexpensive telescope designed for kids from age 8 and up. The excitement when a student comes to school to tell you about their crisp view of the craters on the Moon, seeing the Galilean Moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn is wonderful. It has certainly provided a gateway to amateur astronomy for many of my students.
From exploring the microscopic worlds of insect life, to animal behaviour in your local environment, all the way up to gazing out upon the wonders of distant other worlds, there’s so much to be gained by getting students out of their classroom box, and the tools to do it are at your fingertips.
Mitchell Squires is a star-gazing gardener who loves to photograph bugs, who also happens to teach year 6.
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