SHERIDAN — It’s time for science class for two rooms of fifth-graders at Big Horn Elementary School and the lesson plan calls for bugs. Lots of them.
The aquariums are stocked with Madagascar cockroaches, stick bugs, caterpillars and other creepy crawlers of interest and the three meter plot of observation land in the back field has been scoured for new critters.
But there are two important things missing: the teachers. That is, until the computer is turned on, the Skype feed is loaded and the lesson begins via video chat from the research station in Ecuador where teachers Laurie Graves and Lamont Clabaugh are currently stationed.
The Biodiversity Project
The Biodiversity Project connects classrooms around the world to compare and contrast data collected, pictures taken and discoveries made by students each conducting the same experiment in their own communities, monitoring a specific plot of land and finding any insects living there.
The idea is to start discussions about biodiversity and conservation — issues each area is facing — while making connections for children with people who don’t live in their neighborhood, who may look and dress differently and have different and interesting learnings to share.
The use of technology including Twitter, Skype and their own private website connects these students and allows them to share in the discoveries being made worldwide in real time.
The schools participating this year are logging on from places like New York City, Anchorage, Alaska; Ahmedabad, India; and Perth, Australia, among other U.S. locations including another here in Wyoming, Torrington.
All the while, a team of researchers, teachers and even students are working together at the Yanayacu Research Station near the village of Cosonga in Ecuador.
This team serves as a center focus for all the classrooms.
Duties include skyping with each daily to introduce a tropical ecosystem to the field of study and acting as informational liaisons for the students of varied time zones.
While the project is very global in nature, the local tie is not simply the participation of three Wyoming classrooms. The Biodiversity Project was actually born in Wyoming.
Five years ago, as a student at the University of Wyoming studying under entomology professor Dr. Scott Shaw, Jenifer Donovan traveled to Ecuador under the “Caterpillars and Parasitoids in the Andes of Eastern Ecuador” parent grant.
Shaw and Donovan were seeking a way to get the most out of the grant and he asked her to come up with something, and that’s how the project came to be.
“The idea is to get kids to start looking at the insects and then asking bigger questions like, ‘Are we seeing changes?’” Donovan said. “Any kid no matter where they are located can go outside and look at insects so it was the easy way to get everyone involved and if you start looking at biodiversity on this big scale you can start seeing environmental indicators.”
One example Donovan gave of insects who serve as environmental indicators are Mayflies, which are common in Wyoming.
“Mayflies can only live in very clean streams so if there are any toxins present, the population will disappear within a single generation, so that shows a problem, if you’re watching,” she said.
Donovan returned to Ecuador the next year where she met Graves — there on a similar mission. After being in it from the beginning, this is the first year Graves and Clabaugh are doing it without her.
“Laurie and Lamont are some of the best teachers I have ever met and I’m proud to be working with them,” Donovan said. “They are just doing a fantastic job.”
Graves and Clabaugh
Graves was introduced to Shaw in 2006 when he collaborated with her and one of her third-grade students — Tanner Warder of Big Horn — who wanted to name an official insect for the state of Wyoming. Thanks to Warder’s work and Shaw’s support, Sheridan’s Green Hairstreak Butterfly is now the state insect.
After the butterfly project, Shaw recommended that Graves apply for the “Research for Teachers” grant in order to travel to Ecuador with his team, including Donovan, to conduct hands-on entomology research.
“The first time I traveled to Ecuador I was really impacted by how vital hands-on learning and inquiry were for students to be able to conduct science and apply their other skills of math, reading and writing,” Graves said. “It is essential to raise young scientists who constantly question and search for answers.”
After joining Donovan in her efforts to expand the project, Graves was able to bring Clabaugh on board. She said as a relatively new teacher she was glad to introduce him to a deep and meaningful way of learning, experiencing and teaching science.
“The project has opened my eyes to the whole biodiversity aspect of things,” said Clabaugh. “Professionally it is a great opportunity to network with other teachers and stay ahead of the learning curve and it’s a great way to bring hands-on learning into my classroom and get the students excited about science.”
Graves and Clabaugh are the only two teachers at the research facility this year and are serving each of the participating classrooms. The project hopes to have two lead teachers on-site each year.
Graves said the biggest benefit for the students is the opportunity to learn through personal inquiry and realize that there are not always single answers to questions when it comes to science.
Two students receiving these benefits, Dalton Nelson from Clabaugh’s class and Jersey Dehaven from Graves’, say their favorite part is going out in the field and studying what they find.
“If we throw a rock out, the next time we check under it we’ll find a worm,” Nelson said. “We have found crickets and millipedes but they have found some crazy bugs (in Ecuador) and some really cool birds too.”
Beyond just digging for bugs, the students asked meaningful questions during the Skype session. For example, they recently asked Graves if she has seen any big differences around her since the last time she visited.
The fifth-graders are also able to articulate a powerful lesson from their experiences.
“You’ve got to look around, you can’t just stay in the house and watch TV,” Dehaven said. “If you get out and look around you’ll see some crazy stuff.”
Donovan said this thought has been echoed throughout all the classrooms.
“Our New York students do all their studies in Central Park so now they no longer just walk through the park, they look around and see it in a whole new way,” she said.
As an added benefit, this year Graves orchestrated to bring supplies to a local school in need.
“This was a need I identified on my trip in 2010 and it was really special to finally see it happen,” she said.
Clabaugh added that the school supplies and clothing were donated by their fifth-grade students, The First Presbyterian Church in Sheridan and Graves herself.
The duo will return from their trip this weekend and reclaim their rooms from the substitutes on Tuesday. Based on the loud “we miss you” outcry from the two-dozen students as they waved goodbye to the Skype screen at the end of the lesson, their return is eagerly awaited.