Students Use Virtual Tools to Collaborate Across the Globe on Real World Environmental Conservation


Students in Chicago and Fiji used digital technologies to work together to learn about biodiversity and coral reef conservation. Screen shot courtesy of the Field Museum.

6.2.11 | Last December, Field Museum research scientist Josh Drew picked up a Fijian colleague at O’Hare airport. She was bundled in a fleece jacket, the warmest item of clothing she could find on her island in the Southwest Pacific.

Later, as the pair was driving away from O’Hare, entomologist Akinisi “Cagi” Caginitoba looked at the snow blanketing Chicago and told Drew, “I didn’t know the earth could be this cold.”

Caginitoba was in town for a week of technology training before the late January launch of The Conservation Connection,  an environmental collaboration involving students at Marist High School in Suva, Fiji, and their counterparts at VOISE Academy in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Both sets of teens, like Caginitoba, were about to be transported to a different world. 

“Their life is different than mine, but also the same,” VOISE student Amber Richardson says of her Fijian peers. “We built a relationship with them. I don’t get to visit places like Fiji, but it was amazing to get to know someone across the world.”

The conservation program is based around two reefs, one real (a reef off the coast of Fiji) and the other virtual (designed by the Field Museum). WhyReef, the digital replica, allows kids to “dive” on two reefs, where they can examine 50 different species and play games that teach about biodiversity and conservation. Students also use a reef journal and interactive guides drawn from the Field Museum’s databases and the “Encyclopedia of Life” to identify unknown fish and test theories about healthy and sick reef environments.

In addition, both groups were exposed to a completely foreign culture via social media tools, all with the goal of understanding the science and ecology of coral reefs while attempting to provide real-world solutions to the problems that they see in their own environments.

“We had started looking into digital worlds as a way to work with youth and teens, to reach out to them and get them really participating in science,” says Beth Sanzenbacher, a coral reef specialist at the Field Museum. “So we designed a program to get teens in Chicago and Fiji to interact and learn about biology, ecology and conservation, and to become stewards of their environment.”


The “real” coral reef in Malolo Island, Fiji. Photo by Stacy Jupiter.

Having spent time in Fiji while working on his PhD dissertation, Drew knew that Fijian high school students heard very little about conservation. He also knew that VOISE, where his spouse teaches math, is a 1:1 laptop school (each student is provided a refurbished laptop for home use). Therefore,  despite a distance of more than 7,000 miles between Chicago and Suva, the communication barriers would be lower than at your average inner city high school.

That interaction, he knew, would be essential to the success of the program.

“I can teach them about reefs,” Drew says, “But, they’ll get a lot more out of it if their peers are intimately involved in the process.”

Drew and Sanzenbacher decided that they could leverage the existing digital learning expertise at the Field Museum to create something meaningful for students in both locations. They entered their idea in the HASTAC Digital Media and Learning competition, which is supported by MacArthur Foundation, and last May were one of 40 projects chosen from roughly 700 entrants. During the summer, they designed the program and arranged for Caginitoba to visit in December, when they walked her through the digital video software.

The program went live in late January, with six VOISE students.

“Most of them liked their science classes and thought, ‘this could be neat,’” Sanzenbacher says. “But they had a limited knowledge of science. One student, in fact, had never been to Lake Michigan until the group went there on a field trip. “They came full circle,” says Sanzenbacher.

Drew and Sanzenbacher’s approach was to have the students “do science” first instead of overwhelming them with reading and lectures. For the VOISE students, that meant writing a blog post for the kids at Marist, introducing themselves and what they liked, and vice versa.

The collaboration with the students in Fiji took some time to develop past initial awkwardness and the gap between their worlds. The Marist students, for example, explained how everyone entering a village in Fiji must wear a sulu (like a sarong), keep their head lower than that of the local chief, and drink a beverage known as Kava.

“That’s just stuff you don’t see on Lonely Planet or Discovery Channel,” said Drew.

The Chicago and Fiji students collaborated on a fish species documentary using Flip cameras and information they gathered playing in WhyReef. They wrote a script describing where the clownfish lives, what it eats, how it moves and its natural predators. They posted the videos to a Ning social networking site and received feedback from various experts at the Field Museum, as well as from their fellow students.

The experience of getting feedback required instruction both in how to give and how to receive comments—a skill that will be increasingly important as online collaboration at work and in school expands.

“At first they would say only, ‘Great, nice, I like it,’” says Sanzenbacher. So the team modeled comments from the various experts and discussed how to offer suggestions and receive constructive criticism without taking it personally.

Once the hands-on project was underway, the students were much more engaged, says Sanzenbacher—so much so that when Drew gave a lecture about the science of reef ecology, they listened intently for an hour and a half, asking questions about impacts on the reef.

“We wanted the educational experience to be self-generated,” said Drew, “so instead of having information rain down on them, they would feel like experts” with this approach.

During the roughly four months that the Conservation Connection was taking place at VOISE, Sanzenbacher and Drew followed the same pattern: do science, get feedback and then lecture. In addition, every session started with 15 minutes of directed gameplay on Whyreef, including foodweb games, and counting and identifying species on the reef, among others. This reinforced their learning; the students would play the game multiple times, which left them better prepared for lectures from experts.

“It was much easier for us to show our areas of knowledge,” says Drew, “since they had developed a baseline understanding through the games.”

On one occasion, Drew took the group to the Field Museum to do a DNA extraction with samples he’d brought from Fiji.

“It was actual science, not fake science,” Dew says, which made it more valuable to the students.

For Derrick Burnes, a freshman at VOISE, the project had a significant impact.

“It was cool because we did what scientists do every day,” he says. “It’s what you need 8 to 12 years [more] in school to do. But we did it in high school.”

As an added bonus, Sanzenbacher says, the students learned not only about life on the reef, but their writing, video skills and ability to collaborate improved significantly.

For their final projects, the group put together a PSA video on recycling and how actions the world over can affect life on the reef.  They also wrote a letter to the editor of the Fiji Times newspaper outlining various threats to the reef and what Fijians can do to help preserve it.

“It was students talking to each other and solving problems and using that info to craft a real world conservation solution,” says Drew.

At the end of May, Drew traveled to an international conference in Victoria, British Columbia, where two of the VOISE students used Skype to join the Conservation Connection presentation. They spoke about how they stop friends and relatives from throwing garbage on the ground or from throwing recycling into the trash bin. They explained how they had become advocates for minimizing their environmental footprint among their peers and that they don’t pour just anything (such as bleach) down the drain anymore because they know it goes into the water system.

It was pretty big stuff for the two students, who will be working as full-time interns for Drew this summer.  And, in some ways, that might be the biggest impact of all.

“It’s nice to see a grant have a longer-standing impact on their lives well past May 5, when the project ended,” Drew says. “One of the major things I wanted to get across to them was the diversity of jobs that come with an interest in science.  Because if you don’t know what a job is, you can’t think about yourself doing it.”

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