Reconnecting with nature in your classroom

By Alasdair Davis. Posted

Raspberry Pi camera traps have been deployed around the world to monitor wildlife, including South Georgia to monitor king penguins for Penguin Watch. Image: Alasdair Davies ©

Scientists and researchers use low-cost cameras to monitor wildlife across the globe; Alasdair Davies explains how young learners can get involved.

It may come as a surprise to many, but educational computing hardware commonly found in a classroom setting is equally of use when strapped to a tree 50 metres up in the Amazon rainforest – or lashed to a pole in Antarctica ready to take on the Antarctic winter.

As a conservation technologist, my day job is to develop solutions that enable field conservationists and researchers to conduct field research. Educational hardware, such as the micro:bit, Raspberry Pi, or Arduino, often matches my requirements in terms of the size, cost, and functionality I require to develop affordable time-lapse cameras, miniature passive acoustic sensors, and other versatile wildlife monitoring tools. DIY cameras now watch over Adélie penguin rookeries to assess penguin populations, while a Raspberry Pi Zero has been used as an optical green sea turtle tag to monitor whether plastics are being ingested by turtles beneath the waves.

Developing similar cameras within the classroom can be an exciting activity, exposing students to the wonders of observing wildlife within their local environment, such as their gardens or school grounds, and enabling them to explore hands-on digital making.

Connected classrooms

I’m lucky, as my work lets me experience working with local communities and wildlife conservation projects in some truly breathtaking places, one of which is Príncipe island. With a population of less than 8,000 people, the volcanic island is home to several endemic species and is a stronghold for the green sea turtle. As part of a conservation education programme run by the Arribada Initiative, we wanted to explore what it would look like connecting the schoolchildren of Príncipe to other schools globally by establishing an after-school conservation technology club.

A conservation project is underway in Ittoqqortoormiit, Eastern Greenland © Alasdair Davies

In the summer of 2017, we renovated an abandoned building on the island and established such a club for 9–11 year olds. A programme of basic computer literacy and STEM activities was subsequently developed, all designed around unlocking access to the same conservation technology hardware used in the field by professionals within a classroom environment. To date, 240 students have attended the club in groups of 10–15 students over the past three years, with a 53 percent female to male ratio and over 770 classes delivered. Of particular interest was exploring how data collected on the island, such as camera trap photographs and video from the sea turtle tags, could be analysed by the children, annotated, and shared with other schools via Skype or traditional video conferencing software to discuss and present the results (internet access on the island is surprisingly good).

Connected classrooms, regardless of location, could then physically construct the same hardware tools locally for a hands-on experience via digital making activities, yet also access actual field data, discuss results and insights together, and benefit from the social experience of connecting with other cultures and schoolchildren, undertaking shared digital making activities together.

A class explores a Raspberry Pi Zero that will be attached to a green sea turtle © Alasdair Davies

We now hope to replicate the club in Príncipe on the neighbouring island of São Tomé, and are also exploring how other clubs could be established to support additional conservation projects in remote communities — one of which is in the town of Ittoqqortoormiit, Eastern Greenland. With a population of only 345 people, it is one of the most remote inhabited settlements on the planet. A human– wildlife conflict programme there aims to detect the presence of polar bears and generate an early warning alert to inform the local community.

Development of a low-cost camera trap and thermal sensor by the Arribada Initiative to address the community’s need is underway, again using traditional educational hardware to lower the cost and increase ease of development. In the future it would be fantastic to explore establishing a similar after-school club for the children of Ittoqqortoormiit to access the same hardware, and to discuss and share the conservation project’s aims and outputs with other schools and technology clubs globally.

An introduction to citizen science

You may be thinking, what do researchers do with all the photos captured from wildlife camera traps? With tens of thousands of photos to look at, it’s a good question to ask. The answer is citizen science. The Penguin Watch programme run by the University of Oxford uploads photos captured by their cameras at the end of each season in Antarctica and asks the public to count how many penguins they see in each photo. Over 16,000 volunteers have made over 100,000 classifications to date. The sheer number of people helping to assess what’s in each photograph saves hundreds of hours of effort and can help reconnect people to nature conservation in a unique way.

There are also plenty of local citizen science projects to contribute to using cameras built in the classroom. The British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden BirdWatch asks for contributions each week, running a year-round survey of garden birds. The RSPB also hosts the Big Garden Birdwatch every January. Nearly half a million people contributed last year and it’s a good event to contribute to together with other schools. Results from the 2020 survey highlighted that house sparrow sightings are down 53 percent since the survey began in 1979, with robins and blackbirds down 46 percent and 32 percent respectively.

By introducing students to both digital making and purposeful citizen science, their efforts contributing data to similar wildlife observation surveys in a hands-on way should help reconnect them with nature, reinforce the benefit of STEM-based learning, and highlight the need to conserve and protect the environment.

How it works: A wildlife camera trap

Wildlife camera traps work by detecting the presence of wildlife and taking a photograph of the event. There are usually two methods of detecting if an animal is in front of a camera: detect movement within a video frame, or use a passive infrared (PIR) sensor to detect a change in infrared radiation (radiant heat). A warm-blooded mammal or bird moving past a PIR sensor will trigger a camera in the same way as a garage light detects body heat or a warm car engine. Because we want to power the camera using batteries (so that it can be taken outdoors), running a camera continuously to monitor for movement would consume the available power supply quickly. A PIR sensor connected to a single-board computer works well as an alternative, only snapping photos when a warm-blooded object is detected and keeping the camera off when there isn’t any activity.

Watching bird feeders is particularly rewarding, as there can be lots of activity. School gardens can often reveal night visitors too, such as foxes, badgers, or hedgehogs. For computing clubs and after-school groups looking for a more technical challenge, there are also plenty of physical and software-based activities to enhance the camera. Adding an infrared light and switching the camera module for a Pi NoIR allows students to capture photos at night when there is nocturnal activity. Additionally, computer vision software such as OpenCV can be introduced to highlight how computer-aided vision and machine learning can be used to detect different colours (especially true with garden birds), automatically identify species using object detection algorithms, or count how many different types of species visited a bird feeder at a certain time of day.

As it can be time-consuming to source all the required components to build a wildlife camera, Naturebytes was founded as an educational digital making company in 2014 to help deliver wildlife conservation digital making kits, experiences, and activities. A complete Wildlife Cam Kit is available that contains everything needed to get started along with step-by-step instructions. For teachers who already have most of the parts, a stand-alone waterproof case is also available. Python scripts and software to run your camera can be downloaded from the Naturebytes repository.

A detailed resource for setting up a wildlife camera is also provided on page 82 of issue 14 of Hello World.


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