Blog

And we’re back!

Spring is upon us and so it’s time to start blooming!

You’ll notice I’ve made updates to my personal site and homepage. And after the last few years getting situated in San Francisco, I hope begin a more regular blog posting frequency shortly.

To start off I’d like to share some photos from last summer in the Bay Area.

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Ant Exploration Comic

I haven’t written about our newest and biggest science education, conservation engagement project for students. If you follow me on twitter or facebook though you may have heard about it a bit.

Our Ant Exploration Comic anthology will be used to teach students scientific inquiry skills and build thier understanding of how species interact with their environments. By using ants as a ‘model organism’ we hope to introduce other topics relating to ecology, climate and conservation.

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Once printed, this comic will be used to reach over 240 students at three New York City public schools. This is in collaberation with the School of Ants project and all resources, including the digital copy of the comic, will be available free for teachers & educators on the Your Wild Life lab website.

Our project funding through Indiegogo finished last week – with a total of $2,854 raised! We’re overwhelmed by the support and look forward to sharing the comic with you once we finish!

UPDATE: The digital version of our comic is now online! http://www.yourwildlife.org/2013/10/myrmex/

 

Citizen Science in Formal Education

Citizen science is a powerful and emerging discipline focused on improving research outcomes and engaging the public in scientific inquiry. Projects like BudBurst have allowed us to better observe and compare weather variations surrounding the ‘sprung’ in Spring, Journey North has improved our understanding of the Monarch butterfly’s great migration, and WhaleFM has allowed citizens of all ages to experience the sounds just beneath the ocean waves. Participants in citizen science have the opportunity to add to truly cutting-edge research and help bring forth findings that will help solve some of our greatest environmental issues.

© Scientific American
© Scientific American

Citizen science is inherently engaging, reaching out to the curious nature we all share as humans and inspiring us to explore the natural world around us. Most importantly though, citizen science is beginning to democratize the practice of science – tearing down ivory towers and replacing them with public centers where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to science research.

This ‘opening’ of the science world brings both transparency and increased accessibility to science research. It allows for better management and implementation of policies by allowing a more diverse set of stakeholders to be involved in not only the design of research, but also in collection of data and assessment of findings. Citizen science can in then allow for more robust research outcomes while also meeting essential educational objectives. As we in the scientific community work to improve science literacy and public engagement in science research, citizen science should be more fully incorporated into our research & daily activities.

This is particularly true for research that can involve student participants. Integrating relevant and authentic science research into K-12 education can improve science education and inspire the next generation of science researchers.

School of Ants is citizen-science driven project that works with schools in formal education to help students gain a better understanding local biodiversity. My research in collaboration with this project focuses on ways to improve student engagement in science and conservation. In this case, the science research goals and learning objectives are not mutually exclusive – students are adding directly to valuable ecological research while also developing fundamental science skills.

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In order to design and successfully implement other citizen science projects that focus on formal classroom education, effective learning resources must be developed. The main argument by teachers for not including science research in their classroom is that it does not align with required standards. Scientists can work to meet these by promoting inquiry and place-based learning objectives within their research methods.

The future of citizen science will be positively affected by encouraging the participation of younger members of the public. In order to achieve this, scientists must work with educators to align their goals in collaboration. Despite traditional attitudes and understandings, there is an enormous potential for citizen science in formal education.

Ant Diversity & The Uni Project

On Saturday I joined The Uni Project at the Ideas City Festival in downtown Manhattan to present my research on urban ants and science education.

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The Uni is a project designed to provide a place of learning beyond the walls of schools and libraries and into public space. They achieve this by creating a portable educational environment that can be dropped into almost any available street-level location. This space allows children of all ages an opportunity to gather around books and learning experiences, right in the heart of neighborhoods all across New York City.

The “Ant Cube” I created with Uni founder Leslie Davol is designed to give visitors the chance to experience hands-on science through ants. We’ve set-up a microscope where people can observe a live ant and even use an urban ant key to try to identify it. We also have sampling materials so students can collect their own ants.

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You can read more about the Uni at Ideas City and the Ant Cube on their page here -> http://www.theuniproject.org/2013/05/uni-at-ideascity/

! & ! More photos form the event and Ant Cube here! http://www.theuniproject.org/2013/05/wrapping-up-at-ideas-city/

Exploring Urban Biodiversity at Scioteen

Earlier this month I attended the Science Online Teen conference here in New York City. My job was to present a session on Urban Biodiversity & Citizen science. While I came in as a moderator, I left feeling more like a teacher, student and scientist all in one. I was able to share my knowledge, learn from others and discuss the future of science learning with a talented & diverse group of people.

You can read more about our session in my How Wild is New York City? Reflections from Scioteen post on Your Wild Life’s blog.

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More Information about the other presenters and conference here -> http://scienceonline.com/scienceonlineteen-look-whos-coming/

NYC Ecology Symposium

On Saturday April 20th, scientists from a diverse set of fields – ranging from paleoclimate to landscape genetics to microbial ecology – met at Columbia University to share their research. Despite their academic differences, their talks all shared one common theme … New York City. Specifically, preforming research that will allow us to better understanding the past, current and future ecology of this dynamic and populous urban environment.

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Symposium Summary:

The Ecology of New York City: Organisms, Environment and History symposium explored a range of ecological research happening in and around New York City.  The program is focused on three themes – organisms, environment, and history – with speakers from a range of disciplines including community ecology, evolutionary biology, ecophysiology, paleoecology, archaeology, and conservation. The research presented spanned multiple taxa including plants, microbes, birds, and mammals. The speakers came from universities, government agenices, non-profit conservation groups, and consulting firms.

SONYC Social Media Slant

Last Thursday I traveled up to Rockefeller University to speak at SpotOn NYC’s 2nd birthday. The other presenters and I were there to explain how we use social media for our science outreach projects. These case studies would help share how scientists and educators can use tools like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts or even Instagram to communicate science.

I had 10 minutes to tell my story to the audience and all those watching on the livestream…

I first touched on the basics.
1) Using my Twitter to connect with other teachers and scientists to share ideas on how to improve science education and engage students in research.
2) Running a Facebook Page called “Your Wild Earth” that I use to post pictures and videos of engaging science facts, current events and conservation issues.
3) This blog NYC Ecology to write posts and discuss Urban Ecology & Science Education.

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Yet the main social media tool I was there to speak about was my “Graduates at Work” sections on this blog. I use this page to profile graduate students in the E3B Department at Columbia University with the goal of highlighting effective conservation research. I also spoke about the need for students to read stories about young scientists – to see where they work in the field, what questions they are investigating and most importantly, what their results mean for conservation efforts.

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You can read more about the event – with a summary & Storify here. Look forward to sharing the video of my talk once it’s up!

Your Wild Life Q & A

A few weeks ago I met with the Your Wild Life  team to help with one of their new New York City based research projects. They’ve been working with urban ant species in the big apple for awhile, but just recently started a new project assessing the responses of arthropods to the disturbances caused by Hurricane Sandy. You can read more about this, pretty amazing, research study in a write up on NC State’s site here.

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Placing an ‘iButton’ sensor in a median street tree.

For a few days during their 2 week NYC field session in March, I met with researchers Elsa Youngsteadt and Lea Shell to set-up the primary data collecting tools and survey Broadway medians that would be used in the study. I’m working closely with Lea on my thesis – which involves designing & piloting curriculum for their School of Ants project – and was able to use this field time to discuss science & education as well.

You can find a link to the interview that came from our discussion here http://www.yourwildlife.org/2013/03/science-education-q-a-with-andrew-collins/

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Sifting out ants during a median collection.

Our Global Kitchen

Last week I had the chance to visit Our Global Kitchen at the American Museum of Natural History, which opened up in mid November 2012. I’m hoping this review will highlight some of the more engaging features of the exhibit and encourage you to visit – whether you’re a teacher planning a class field trip or a New York City resident looking for something to do on a snowy winter day. To help point you in the right direction I’ve set up the sections below as so, along with a overview of the exhibit to start.

The Basics
Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture explores our food system and the various social and natural components imbedded within it. From a history of early marketplaces to the future of urban farming, OGK examines how food is produced and moved throughout the world and how this system has evolved over time. With opportunities to cook a virtual meal, taste seasonal treats and view rare culinary artifacts, this exhibit illuminates the intricacies of food and its influence on culture and human identity. As a visitor you are asked to ponder one underlying question: From farm to fork, what brings our food to us and how do our choices affect the planet?

For NYC Folk
Spend Time…
At the 900 varieties of Peruvian Andes potatoes section. Presented to the mother, only the perfect ‘makes the son-in-law cry‘ potato will get a courter the daughter’s hand in marriage.
Don’t Miss…
The famous historical figures meal display. From Gandhi to Kublai Khan to Jane Austin, this section allows you to ‘peek’ into the culinary trends of their time. There’s even a meal for Ötzi, the ‘Iceman’ who lived 5,000 years ago.

Cougar Paw, Marbled Shuttle...
Cougar Paw, Marbled Shuttle…
Ötzi's last meal.
Ötzi’s last meal.

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For Teachers
Spend Time…
1. Watching the opening video. This 5 min clip introduces students to exhibit theme: how our individual food choices have global implications. Engaging and informative, viewing area has watermelon seats to boot. 2. Discussing the food waste model. Over 30% of all food produced is wasted, an alarming fact made very clear by the 15 foot 1 yr waste visual.
Don’t Miss…
The cook-a-virtual-meal interactive. This i-pad like table allows students to mix ingredients and follow recipes from various cultures.

© AMNH
1 year of waste © AMNH
Cooking a virtual meal.
Cooking a virtual meal..

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For Us All
Don’t miss & spend time by the working kitchen. The staff here will both inform and excite you as they describe the food items available for that day. While there, a group of middle school students and I discussed where cocoa is grown while munching down happily on a bar of dark chocolate. With free, tasty, and unlimited (?) samples of food, this section is a can’t miss.

Special thanks to Erin Betley, a biodiversity specialist for the CBC and one of the content developers for the OGK exhibit, for leading our tour.

Eat them, hunt them or embrace them…

How exactly do we deal with invasive species?

If you know where to look, there’s a delicious beer-battered lionfish recipe out there just waiting for you to try. In fact, there are a couple hundred marine biologists who’d love for you to try it as well. This Indo-Pacific marine fish is venomous, highly territorial and dangerously prolific. It represents one of the most threatening modern exotic introductions, displacing native fish across Florida waters and more recently, Caribbean coral reef environments at a disturbingly rapid pace. If we know lionfish and other invasive species are causing enormous ecological damage  … well … what the hell are we going to do about it?

Mature Lionfish © Flickr user Alkok
Mature Lionfish © Flickr/Alkok

To Hunt
Last Sunday night a competition between over a thousand hunters ended in the Everglades. $1,500 to the person who bagged the most and $1,000 for the longest. This competition was organized to address the impact of another equally threatening invasive predator, the Burmese Python. Like the lionfish, this introduced reptile has altered the ecological structure of extremely valuable Florida environments. Can similar eradication projects be organized to target lionfish? In fact they’ve already begun (see Lionfish Derby) and most state governments actively encourage divers to spear and kill lionfish found in local waters. While these programs certainly raise awareness, hunting practices must be able to significantly reduce populations in order for us to make headway.

To Eat
There’s a reason the 12ft 500 pound Moa went extinct after the first humans arrived to New Zealand in 1400 AD. This massive bird was tasty, defenseless and easy to kill in large numbers. Many of the invasives we are dealing with today are by their very nature, however, quite different. The Asian shore crab is a good example. This two inch opportunistic crustacean is rapidly outcompeting native crab, fish and shellfish species along the entire Eastern Coast. Is it a good strategy to try and reduce this invasive population through consumption? Eat the Invaders believes so, an organization dedicated to providing recipes for common North American invasive flora & fauna. Even with our cooking instructions in hand though, a market for these invaders must first exist.

Lionfish Spearing © Flickr user SKennelly
Lionfish Spearing © Flickr/SKennelly

To Embrace
In the case of the lionfish, studies have shown that hunting is not a feasible option for controlling the population – divers simply can’t collect enough to halt their expansion. At least 27% of the invasive adult populations would have to be killed monthly, a task that could only be achieved by bringing in a trained ‘lionfish’ hunting corps. Commercial catch for consumption has similar complications, all pointing to the end fact that lionfish collection just isn’t economically viable. So knowing what we now know …. if we do choose to embrace, are we damning native diversity by accepting the permanent presence of invasive species?

A Solution…
As citizens and scientists approaching the lionfish invasion, we must decide on achievable conservation goals. If we agree to restore Florida and Caribbean ecosystems to their natural state, what exactly do we mean? Is it possible to return all flora & fauna to their pre-lionfish condition? The question of defining baselines for restoration remains a hotly debated topic, one that is changing ever more rapidly as we realize the ecological implications of future climate change. In the design of programs to address lionfish, we can accept their presence without ‘giving up’ on the health & diversity of these valuable ecosystems. I believe our response to all invasive species should include three major goals: avoid future introductions, mitigate current ones and set effective conservation management that promotes the functioning and resilience of altered ecosystems. We must move our focus from restoring to some historical baseline to protecting these ecosystems as they currently exist and more importantly, as they continue to change in future. As Matt Palmer, a community ecologist at Columbia University, wrote in a recent post on exotic species, “language about fighting to put things back the way they were is probably less useful than language about adapting to a changed environment.” The ecological history of our planet has been defined by change, alterations in climate that have brought new environments and new species to inhabit them. As we realize our role in introducing damaging invasives and in hastening global climate change, we must focus on what is possible – adapting for the future.