Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A wifi-cloud spotters' guide to the future of wildlife education

This week's review sees us travel into the future, where pupils can scan wildlife, like barcodes, to identify species and where wi-fi access underpins all outdoor learning. We ask "Is this the end of the Age of Discovery and the dawn of the Age of the Ipad?" Plus (back to reality) there's lots on discovering more about forests, and information on getting your nest boxes up in time for National Nest Box Week.

Permit me to paint you a picture of the future. Possibly an alternative reality, or something like that, where Britain’s nature reserves have become even better places for the public to see and understand wildlife.

In our alternative future school children on a fieldtrip empty out of their bus (yes, there’s still buses ok), eye up the gift shop for later (them too) and look forward to a day’s learning. The educational ranger hands each pupil a ipad-like tablet (complete with scanner) and off they go into the woods…

First stop for the children: a tree-top walk. The pupils ascend into a beautiful canopy arena, while their eyes remain glued to their tablets which busily assimilate a newsfeed of all of the birds within 100 metres. The tablet collates the bird list by picking up their calls in the dense foliage.

Next the pupils coalesce at a viewing platform 100 metres high. Here they can connect, via wi-fi, to see live camera feeds of every nest in the woodland on their tablet’s screen – camera-feeds mean that every pupil will get to watch a bird hatching, in real time.

Near the front, some of the keener pupils check Google Ring Maps, to see if any unusual ringed birds are making a pass of the viewing platform…

Time continues to pass in our alternative future. Next, the pupils file down to a pond. Here they walk down stairs into an underground cavern beneath the pond, and are able to look up through the pond’s bottom at the creatures in the water. Each pond creature has had a special gene inserted so that the pupils can scan each animal, barcode-like, with their tablet before Google Chrome(asome) provides species, genus and all the rest of the answers…

Ok. And we’re back. Yes, back to the relative safety of this blog. So what picture am I trying to paint with my future vision? Well, it’s an exaggerated version of where I feel we’re in danger of going with some of our wild places. I think we could forget about discovery of nature and focus too much on learning. Let me explain...

You can see nest box cameras at many nature reserves. You can walk through treetop canopies at some (and very nice they are too). But do these expensive techniques really inspire enough new nature lovers to justify the expense? Are we removing the mystery of nature a bit, and providing kids with all the answers too soon?

My alternative future might not be right on the mark, and sure, the other bits (scanning species genes, Google Ring Maps, underground pond safaris) aren’t commonplace yet, but I guarantee you these things have been discussed, or they’re in the pipeline somewhere. Handheld tablets for site visitors? It’s been done by many organisations already, including (successfully I should say) by the wildlife charity Froglife.

Exciting as this sounds though, I wonder if it’s dangerous for us to invest as a society too heavily in this area if it’s naturalists and conservationists we’re after. Although these techniques make nature accessible to everyone (particularly tech-savvy young people) and are clearly of benefit in learning (particularly for large groups), we shouldn’t bank everything on them.

For a start they can be costly long-term (tree-top walks decompose just like the trees, albeit a bit slower!) and don’t get me started on the IT side (as we all know software dates quickly and badly). Pond-dipping platforms also decompose eventually. Do we really need them too?

This was brought up this week by my former colleagues at Froglife. Schools invariably want them for their ponds, but are they really the best use of money, as ‘safe entry-points’ to the underwater world, or as platforms for ecological surveying? Pond Conservation’s Jeremy Biggs’s excellent The Garden Pond Blog underlines this point really well.

Although I agree that technological feats have a place, and novel ways to get up close with nature, like tree-top walks or pond-dip platforms, have a place, let’s not forget about the inspirational power of the teacher in all of this. We need more of them, somehow...

(In the future world I tried to paint, this inspirational teacher will be the one who’s got the young naturalists looking at the dead bugs on the windscreen of the bus, or gazing at the wasps chewing on the wooden handrails of the tree top walk - the places that the IPad can't reach!)

Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring, and a bit of an inspirer of humankind herself) summed it up rather well: “It is not half as important to know, as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.” In other words, it’s the discovery that’s the magic, not the knowledge.

My fear is that, in the future, it’ll be the ipads doing too much of the discovery…

Handy pointer to Forest Schools

So it’s here that I point to the Forest School initiative. You’ve probably heard about it through a friend of a friend, or read some nice press. It’s a lovely approach to teaching, pioneered by the Scandinavians. More and more schools here appearing to be taking notice.

The rules are simple. Get a forest, get the pupils learning there, and help them learn in their own way; steering them to make learning associations and pursue their interests themselves, and largely through play.

It’s all about discovery (of course) and there’s lots of information at: Here you can find out how to set them up, where your local Forest School is, and how to get trained-up (there are five levels of Forest School teachers, don’t you know).

To update Wordsworth’s famous quote: “Let nature be your guide (not your ipad).” Amen.

Some resources about learning about forests

So what else is going on this week? Well, here would be a good place to squeeze in a special mention to Mission:Explore. This educational application allows members to post outdoor ‘missions’ in outdoor spaces, and encourage other members to go out and do them. Again, discovery is what it’s all about.

There are lots of forest-based missions on the (packed) map, including: “Go and sit on the lowest branch on this tree” or “draw a 360 panorama sat under this tree.” There’s a real guerrilla charm about the Mission:Explore website, even if it’s just about getting ideas for entertaining the kids at half-term.

If you want more ways to let the forests do the teaching, there are other resources to help. I had a little rant last week about the Forestry Commission, but they do have a few resources for your perusal. You can find these here.

Another organisation that can provide you with resources is the Forest Education Initiative, which has a sackful of educational resources, mainly focused on how wood gives us nature-friendly woodland and, through management, everyday wood products like errr…. nest-boxes.

National nest-box week

Ah, talking of nest boxes don’t forget that next week is National Nest Box Week. This lovely initiative (which is also a neat bird monitoring tool for bird conservationists, the British Trust for Ornithology), encourages everyone to make and put up bird boxes in preparation for spring. On the website there’s guidance on making bird boxes, and importantly, how to monitor which birds may be using the box when egg-laying starts soon. It all kicks off on Valentine’s Day (when else?).

As always, I am up for hearing your comments, feedback and other pointers for helping environmental educators stay connected to what’s going on in the wildlife conservation scene.

Now’s the time to get inspired, particularly as the days lengthen and nature’s loins start to stir! (Hmmmm….I’ll leave you with that rather weird image).

Until next week! Jules

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