Not only can school children help professional scientists find answers; their free-wheeling minds often come up with new and better questions, Cornell University ornithologist Andre Dhondt said today (Feb. 16) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
"When we take authentic science into the classroom, students get hands-on experience solving real problems, we scientists get information that we could never obtain otherwise, and all of society benefits," said Dhondt, the Morgens Professor of Ornithology and director of Bird Population Studies at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. He told the AAAS session on science education about Cornell-based programs that have students across North America gathering data on relevant issues, analyzing their findings and reporting to scientists on phenomena as close as their classroom window.
Thousands of volunteer birders, including school children and teachers, youth groups, families and individuals, contribute more data than all the ornithologists and wildlife biologists could gather in a lifetime, said Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology Education Director Rick Bonney, pointing to several continentwide programs originating at the Cornell lab: The oldest and largest, Project FeederWatch, has more than 11,000 participants each year, while the newer student version, Classroom FeederWatch, is being pilot-tested in more than 60 schools across the United States. Project PigeonWatch enlists school children, primarily in inner-city neighborhoods, to make scientific observations about the bird ornithologists call the rock dove. The House Finch Disease Survey tracks the spread of an eye infection that first appeared in the Eastern United States.
Another program, Project Tanager, first studied the effect of forest fragmentation on species that need the shelter of trees, then led to the project Birds in Forested Landscapes, examining the survival needs of thrushes and accipiters. Results of those citizen-science projects are reported to federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service, to help determine land-management policies throughout the country.
Birds are ideal for scientific study by young non-professionals, the ornithologist said. For one thing, birds are everywhere, and school children are almost as widely distributed. Most children have a natural curiosity about birds, he said, and once they understand birds' role as early-warning indicators of environmental health in the habitats they share, students naturally want to learn more.
"The scientific questions these kids try to answer are not busy-work," Dhondt said. "They're real-science questions that no one has the answer for and, in many cases, we will never find without hundreds or thousands of collaborators in a wide geographic area," he added, offering one example: the question of acid rain's effect on bird reproduction. Scattered evidence from Europe and North America is beginning to suggest that acid rain, falling on certain soil types, is removing the calcium that snails need to make shells. And that may reduce the number of snails that some bird species eat for the calcium in their eggshells, resulting in too-thin shells or no eggs at all.
To test the acid rain/snail shell/bird's egg hypothesis, Cornell ornithologists will ask volunteers in different areas to put empty chicken eggshells where songbirds can find them, then observe the birds' calcium-eating and nesting behavior. "There aren't enough professional ornithologists in the world to conduct massive projects like these," Dhondt said, "even if we could get them to focus on particular questions."
And the questions school children devise can be even more intriguing, the scientist said. "Of course, some of the answers are already well known, but that just enables us and their teachers to guide them through the fascinating wealth of biological knowledge. It's the truly new questions that come from thousands of inquisitive minds, looking at science from a fresh perspective, that constantly surprise us," the scientist-educator said.
EDITORS: Andre Dhondt will present his paper Feb. 16 at the AAAS annual meeting. Starting Feb. 17, he can be reached at (607) 254-2445. Larry Bernard of the Cornell News Service can be reached in the AAAS newsroom or at the Sheraton Seattle, (206) 621-9000, Feb. 13-18, or at (607) 255-3651 after Feb. 18.