Exploring nature in cyberspace


Are you a videophile? Is your son or daughter? Chances are the answer is “yes.” If you have a preference for indoor media activities— computer, iPod, Wii, DVD player—over outdoor activities, then you are stricken.


Clancy J. Wolf, technology coordinator at IslandWood, an outdoor learning center in Washington, calls the general attitude toward technology a love-hate relationship. “We hate TV, but we have a favorite show…we hate electronic eavesdropping, but we love it when it is used to capture a fiendish criminal. We love to hate it. We hate to love it.”

While the programs at IslandWood are designed to provide learning experiences that inspire lifelong environmental and community stewardship, Wolf said that the center is embracing technology as a means to appeal to different learning styles. Technology is an “amplifier,” he said, that helps extend our senses. “Since we interact with the environment through our senses, using technology seems a logical element of instruction about the environment.”

In the classrooms at IslandWood, kids use digital cameras to learn constellations. They take pictures of each other posing in the shape of a constellation, transfer the picture to the computer, remove the background and add stars in the correct places. “We’ve had kids print their constellations on transfer paper and iron them onto t-shirts,” Wolf said. “It’s hard to forget what Cassiopeia looks like once you’ve sat in her chair.”

Digital cameras are just one form of technology being used to reconnect videophiles with nature. John Berry, an ecology teacher at Green High School in Green, Ohio, believes that “most kids have an innate awe of nature” that can be tapped using technology combined with hands-on experiences. Ohio state education mandates require teachers to integrate technology into their classroom instruction. So when Berry wrote the ecology curriculum for the school, he naturally incorporated various forms of technology to teach different components of the nature-based lessons.

 Berry prefers to do his lessons outdoors and not only takes his students there but totes the tech tools as well. With a portable bird call and amplifier in hand, Berry and his students transform into what he calls the “pied pipers of nature.” As a “jay” call rings from his laptop, a flock of blue jays soars in looking for the new kid in the neighborhood.

“If you have a good imagination, you can think of things to do that are more than a five-second ‘wow’,” Berry said, adding that he “always hooks at least one” student into wanting to pursue some form of environmental study after high school.

A CD with bird and frog calls combined with a PowerPoint presentation of 40 bird and frog pictures kicks off Berry’s class every semester. By the end of the course, his students can identify them by sight and sound. He does a similar exercise with wildflowers. Armed with digital cameras, teams of students take pictures and collect data on wildflowers, pass the information on to another team that determines the species and then puts together a PowerPoint presentation about the flowers. About 80 types of wildflowers are learned in the process. Recently Berry was awarded a grant to purchase radio telemetry equipment for his students to use for tracking and collecting data on frogs. The students then send the data to the state, which uses it to evaluate location, population, and behavior of frogs.


 How about scuba diving into the kelp forests of Monterey Bay in California? Chances are that most people won’t get the opportunity to physically experience it. A virtual dive into the deep sea of Monterey Bay, however, could be enough to give a sense of the beauty and mystery of this elusive part of nature. The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers this and other computer-bases activities that are designed to create a connection between landlubbers and the sea.

Do you suffer from Videophillia?

  • Do you find your eyes dry and red at the end of the day from having stared at a computer for eight hourd ormore?
  • Do you get more light from flat-screen TVs than from the sun?
  • Are your lower back and fingers more likely to ache than your leg muscles?
  • Do you check the weather by visiting weather.com rather than walking out the door?
  • Do you have the channel that airs Comedy Central memorized?
  • Would you have to consult a map to reach the parks in your area?
  • When you have a free afternoon, is your first impulse to check MrMovie. com for the local listings?

“Through the connection people make with the animals in our collection, we can engage their interests to care about the threats facing ocean wildlife—and point them to actions they can take to safeguard ocean ecosystems,” said Ken Peterson, communications director for the aquarium.

Noting that the living exhibits are the best means for inspiring a love of marine life and the oceans, Peterson said the “E-Quarium” on the aquarium’s website (montereybayaquarium.org) was created to offer information and an introduction to the animals for those who may never visit the aquarium.

“The videos and games on our site are tools of engagement,” Peterson explained. “If the experience ends there, kids and adults are shortchanging themselves of the opportunity to get real in nature.”


Yellowstone National Park has its own virtual activities for school-aged children as well as teachers. Since 2001, Yellowstone has offered electronic field trips—eTrips—to share the resources and treasures of the park with kids who may not actually get to visit America’s first national park. The eTrips, offered through the park’s “Windows into Wonderland” program (windowsintowonderland.org), take visitors into the lives of wolves, bears, swans, and bison, along with a history and orientation of the park and its geological features.

“[Young people] are our future stewards,” said Craig Johnson, Yellowstone’s web programmer. “We want them to enjoy what nature offers and, when they are old enough to vote, protect it.”

Each “field trip” is designed to accommodate an hour-long classroom period. When each of the eTrips premiered, the park provided the opportunity for kids to participate in a real-time, online discussion with a park ranger about the trip. Although funding for creating new eTrips has been exhausted, the questions and answers from the discussions are archived and accessible on the website, Johnson said.

In the last year, the site has documented 60,000 users from 150 countries who viewed a total of 600,000 pages on the site. Those numbers could actually be much larger, Johnson said, because those users could either be an individual or a teacher who is using it with a classroom of students. “We suspect many more people are viewing these than we can capture with web stats packages,” he noted.

The National Park Service (NPS) website (nps. gov) also has interactive programs ranging from an antler/horn match game to a 3D video game designed to teach wolf ecology and behavior.

WebRangers (www.webrangers.us), the NPS ’s online Junior Ranger program for kids of all ages, boasts more than 84,000 registered WebRangers in more than 100 countries, 3,700 of whom have earned WebRanger patches for completing all of the online activities. Nature-specific activities include “Dendrochronology” (learning how to tell time from tree rings), identifying rocks, reading a map, wildlife in Yellowstone’s winter, and understanding how fires occur and behave in national parks.

About 500,000 children each year participate in Junior Ranger activities that are offered in the national parks, but they have to physically be there to complete the program. This writer’s nieces and nephews were fortunate to have the opportunity to earn their Junior Ranger badges while actually visiting Yellowstone Park and attending ranger talks, participating in nature scavenger hunts, and answering trivia questions as they made their way through the park.

Just as colleges and universities began developing online courses and degrees to accommodate adults who cannot, for one reason or another, physically attend classes, the NPS realized that lots of kids might never get the chance to actually visit a national park to earn Junior Ranger status, but nearly all have access to the Internet. WebRanger, the cyber version of Junior Ranger, was created to give them a glimpse into what national parks are all about.

National Geographic’s website also has interactive features that take you into the depths of Yellowstone’s surface to explore the hydrothermal features that made the park unique (nearly half of the world’s hydrothermal features are found in Yellowstone).

Computer technology—iPods, PDAs, video games, etc.—is here to stay. To think of what lies ahead in the future of technology can be mind blowing. The key is to use it to the advantage of nature and the environment, sparking what Berry called the innate awe of nature in kids.

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Carol Ferrie joined the PERC team in 2001 as a program coordinator, focusing on programs for environmental practitioners and entrepreneurs, but also pinch hitting for the expanding slate of educational and outreach programs. She also serves as managing editor of PERC publications, overseeing production of PERC Reports, Policy Series, and other...
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