In Maryland, USA, a group of 1300 amateur scientists teamed up to document species of amphibians and reptiles by using high tech acoustic monitoring devices and mapping technology. They're the seventh graders of Calvert County School System and they're an integral part of the Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas (MARA).
MARA is a five-year project created by the Natural History Society of Maryland and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The aim of the project was to document the statewide distribution of Maryland's amphibians and reptiles and to find rare species locations for future conservation efforts. The project relied heavily on the participation of citizen scientists, such as the students of Calvert County, to report sightings and log locations of amphibians and reptiles.
Calvert County Public School System has a valuable environmental education program (CHESPAX) in which the Board of Education staff works closely with local, state and regional partner agencies to provide hands-on environmental education experiences for the students of Calvert County. Tom Harten, CHESPAX teacher in the Calvert Public Schools, decided the MARA project would be a great learning opportunity for his students to actively participate in species monitoring and conservation efforts. His goal was to involve every seventh grade class in Calvert County with the MARA project and embed it within the science curriculum for the entire county for six middle schools.
Since amphibians primarily vocalize at night, Mr. Harten needed a tool that would allow students to record those sounds automatically. Some research led Mr. Harten to Wildlife Acoustics and the Song Meter.
Funding for Song Meters came from county STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) funding and a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The primary stakeholders were the participating, 1300, seventh grade students and their teachers. Each school received at least one Unit Resource Kit which included a Song Meter, a handheld recorder, a CD with instructional information, resources to assist with species ID and much more.
Tom Harten explains, "Our goal was to determine amphibian species presence at multiple locations in Calvert County, Maryland as a part of the MARA project." Tom continues, "We conducted fairly extensive teacher training programs as a way to obtain buy-in. The nature of the project really engaged the students--so that contributed greatly to the buy in as well. All of our deployments were done by middle school teachers and their students. Our staff programmed the Song Meters for the classes prior to distribution."
Mr. Harten said, "Some of our best recordings came from schoolyard sediment control ponds where access was easiest for the students. Our staff also deployed the Song Meters in targeted areas that would be difficult for students to access easily. So we had data from different landscapes. The Song Meters were quite essential to the project."
Periodically, students listened and analyzed the vocalizations in their classrooms. The location and identity of the species were then logged into the MARA database. CHESPAX even created an impressive blog full of photos, stories, and updates called their Frog Blog. The teachers could easily share the data in the FrogBlog, thus allowing all of the students and teachers to collaborate on the recordings.
Mr. Harten measured success from the teacher evaluations he received and from anecdotal feedback. The program was extremely popular with students and teachers. Mr. Harten affirms, "Students that participated in the program really know their amphibian calls when they attend a different field experience with our staff. We travel by canoe out onto a creek and the students start rattling off the names of frogs and toads when they hear the vocalizations." Since the MARA project ended in 2015, Mr. Harten and CHESPAX are looking at a possible shift in the program to examine global climate change and its impact on wildlife, including amphibians. This would be an eighth grade program that would begin in the spring of 2018. In the meantime, he and his students have been doing a more localized study with the Calvert County Natural Resources Division, so the project will continue with the data staying in-county for the most part.
Mr. Harten recommends, that before creating a similar project, other school systems should provide as much professional development for the teachers as possible. Since students respond to the real world nature of a project, try and connect any student monitoring program with a local or regional authentic study.
**Special thanks to Mr. Harten who provided the majority of content for this case study.