Tag Archives: snapshot serengeti

Snapshot Serengeti Brings Authentic Research into Undergraduate Courses

Today’s post comes from Annika Moe. Annika is a post-doctoral fellow in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota and has a background in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. She is currently working to incorporate authentic research experiences into courses for non-biology majors and incorporate learning technologies into the classroom.

 ‘What is that?” My officemate crossed the room and squinted at the image on my computer.

“Tawny-colored herbivore?” I tilted my head and considered a new angle of the extreme close-up photo before me. “Lion?”

“Mmm… wishful thinking…”

“I’m calling it a Hartebeest. They seem to always be standing around under trees.  This camera’s probably fixed to a tree” and I clicked on the “Next capture” button.

“Trotsky!” we both sang out as we watched a lone warthog plod half-ways across the screen.  We had decided it was an appropriate name for the jolly looking animal that kept appearing at a number of different camera sites. Next capture.

This went on for a couple hours as I familiarized myself with Zooniverse’s Snapshot Serengeti project.  I couldn’t stop pressing that button… Next captureNext capture…  It was addicting.  Something about this experience was transporting me across the world and tapping into a child-like sense of wonder that I hadn’t felt in a long while.

Snapshot Serengeti was a perfect fit for what I wanted to accomplish.

“Incorporate an authentic research experience into a laboratory course for non-biology majors.”  This was the charge I was given when I arrived at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2012.  With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the College of Biological Sciences had hired a group of post docs to tackle this challenge across a number of the “non-major” courses offered by the Biology Program.

With a degree in ecology and evolution, I made a beeline for BIOLOGY 1001: Ecological and Evolutionary Perspectives.  What fun! Working with my favorite student demographic (non-biology majors) on my favorite subjects!

It would be a great challenge.  This may be the only biology class these students take during their college education.  Many may believe that they have no interest in or talent for science. They could be future engineers, business leaders, teachers, politicians, computer scientists, comedians, or journalists. What do we want these students to take away from their one biology class? What is an authentic research experience, and can students authentically experience science in such a short time?

 I had recently read a paper by a group from Stanford University [1] that gave a number of suggestions for successfully integrating faculty research into undergraduate biology education. Snapshot Serengeti met some of the more challenging suggestions.

  1. Low barrier of technical expertise for students to collect data Check.  Snapshot Serengeti has an intuitive user-interface and tutorial tools. Students can learn to collect data with little to no instruction.
  2.  Established checks and balances for student-collected data Check. Snapshot Serengeti has a data quality control system of multiple identifications and ID confirmation through consensus.
  3. Diverse, but constrained set of variables for developing hypotheses Check.  The data collected by the Snapshot Serengeti project consists of a manageable number of variables and metadata associated with camera locations.  The nature of the data generally directs investigations toward asking questions about distribution patterns over time and space.
  4. Central database accessible to all students Check.  The researchers behind the Snapshot Serengeti project are led by Dr. Craig Packer, professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior and instructor of BIOL 1001 at the University of Minnesota.  The current quality-checked data set from Snapshot Serengeti is readily available to our students.

And so I prepared a six-week laboratory module in which students used the Snapshot Serengeti project to make observations and collect data, generate testable questions and investigate those questions using the combined data from all Snapshot Serengeti participants.  While it is impossible to experience all aspects of scientific research in six weeks, the module uses exploratory research and observational study to highlight a few key pieces of the process.

 The first two weeks are spent exploring, observing and wondering about Serengeti wildlife. Students read and discuss scientific papers on Serengeti ecology.  They learn about trophic dynamics and interactions through building a Serengeti food web.  Students spend time using the Snapshot Serengeti website and practice generating observations and questions from both individual photos and sets of photos across space and time.  From this pool of experiences, students draw on their own intellectual curiosity and understanding to form their research questions.

The third week introduces the students to the Snapshot Serengeti database.  Students are given instruction on how to use the data filter and graphing functions in the statistical program Jmp.  They are given time to explore the data and computer program to try and address a few testable questions given to them at the start of the lab session.  Students compare different data visualization methods and discuss their relative utility in displaying different types of data.

During the fourth and fifth weeks, students work in groups to investigate a set of their own questions, organized around a theme in Serengeti ecology.  Groups are let loose with the database and Jmp program to investigate their questions and prepare a presentation of their findings. During these two weeks, Students experience the challenge that researchers face in identifying the data that truly addresses their questions and organizing the data to test their ideas.

In the final week, groups present their research to the class and reflect on what they’ve learned about the nature of science and the research process.

During Fall of 2013, we piloted this module in 3 lab sections involving 59 students. I had no idea what the students would take away from the six weeks of working with the Snapshot Serengeti project.  The assignments were open-ended and students largely left to figure out how to address their questions without explicit instruction. I expected that they would be confused, frustrated and perhaps even angry.  I was afraid that working with a giant spreadsheet of numbers would bore them.  I was hoping for something great, but prepared for a disaster.

I was shocked by what I saw during the pilot of the module. Students were huddled over their computers for the entire two hours of each lab period, working furiously to find patterns in their data.  They were on task, engaged and asking questions.

I was even more amazed when I asked what they had learned from their experience.

They recognized the creative nature of science:

“Being a design student, art has always been a stronger subject than science [for me]. With this lab I realized the two are very similar.  The process of discovery is the same and even science takes creativity.”

-Architecture

“I did not realize how much trial and error [is involved] because the usual labs… had instructions for how to do them properly.  This time I was creating the process.”

-English

 They recognized the difference between logical thought and empirical evidence:

 “I learned that most of the time your common sense thoughts are not backed up strongly by research.”

-Political Science and Philosophy

 “[I learned] that failing to find what you were looking for is still a result and happens often in science. “

-Finance

They experienced the scientific method as more than a blind march through a series of steps:

“I learned it’s not as linear a process as I thought it was.  Hypotheses and conclusions change alongside the discovery of new data; it’s a fluid process.”

 -Journalism

They recognized that the direction of research is driven by questions:

“I knew that it was really important to continually ask questions but I did not realize how integrated it was to the process or how naturally more questions appear.”

-Undeclared

Reflecting back on some of my initial questions about what makes a research experience “authentic”, the answer really isn’t that complicated.  Scientists have the freedom pursue the questions that interest them and the freedom to follow where those questions lead. Give students the tools to ask and investigate questions, then give them the freedom to be a scientist.

Zooniverse and Snapshot Serengeti offer an amazing exploratory platform from which to awaken curiosity and dive into the scientific process.

 “Try to find out something interesting. Interest is the best motivation.”

-Actuarial math and accounting student

[1] Kloser, M.J. et al. 2011. Integrating Teaching and Research in Undergraduate Biology Laboratory Education. PLoS Biology. Vol 9:11. e1001174.
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ZooTools: Going Deeper With Zooniverse Project Data

One of the best things about being an educator on the Zooniverse development team is the opportunity to interact with teachers who are using Zooniverse projects in their classroom and teachers who are interested in using Zooniverse projects in the classroom. Teachers cite several reasons about why they use these projects – Authentic data?  Check. Contributing to cutting-edge research across a variety of scientific fields?  Check.  Free?  Check. Classifying a few galaxies in Galaxy Zoo or identifying and measuring some plankton in Plankton Portal can be an exciting introduction to participating in scientific investigations with “the professionals.”  This isn’t enough though; teachers and other educators are hungry for ways to facilitate deeper student engagement with scientific data. Zooniverse educators and developers are consistently asked “How can my students dig deeper into the data on Zooniverse?”

This is where ZooTools comes into play. The Zooniverse development team has recently created ZooTools as a place where volunteers can observe, collect, and analyze data from Zooniverse citizen science projects. These tools were initially conceived as a toolkit for adult volunteers to use to make discoveries within Zooniverse data but it is becoming apparent that these would also have useful applications in formal education settings. It’s worth pointing out that these tools are currently in beta. In the world of web development beta basically means “it ain’t perfect yet.”  ZooTools is not polished and perfect; in fact it’s possible you may encounter some bugs.

Projects like Galaxy Zoo and Planet Hunters have an impressive history of “extra credit” discoveries made by volunteers.  Galaxy Zoo volunteers have made major contributions to the astronomy literature through the discovery of the green peas galaxies and Hanny’s Voorwerp .  In Planet Hunters volunteers use Talk to share methods of exploring and results from the project’s light curves.  ZooTools lowers the barrier of entry by equipping volunteers with some simple tools to look for interesting relationships and results contained within the data.  No specialist knowledge required.

We’ve only begun thinking about how ZooTools could be used in the classroom.  I started my own investigation with a question that came from a Zooniverse classroom visit from last spring.  While making observations as a class about some of the amazing animals in Snapshot Serengeti one young man asked about civets. He wanted to know If they were nocturnal. We had an interesting discussion about how you could find out this information.  The general consensus was to Google it or look it up on Wikipedia.  I wondered if you could use the data contained within Snapshot Serengeti to come up with a reasonable answer.  I was excited to roll-up my sleeves and figure out how to use these tools to find a likely answer.  Here are the steps I took…

Step 1: Log-in to Zooniverse and go to ZooTools.

Step 1

Step 2: Select a project. Currently only have a few projects have data available to explore using ZooTools.

Step 2

Step 3: Create a dashboard.

Step 3

Step 4: Name your dashboard something awesome. I called mine Civets! for obvious reasons.

Step 4

Step 5: This is your blank dashboard.

Step 5

Step 6: It’s time to select a data source. I selected Snapshot Serengeti.

Step 6

Step 7: This is the data source.

Step 7

Step 8: I wanted to be able to filter my data so I selected Filter under search type. The name of this dataset in Snapshot Serengeti 1.

Step 8

Step 9: Since I wanted to look at civets, I selected that on the species dropdown menu and then clicked Load Data. My dataset will only contain images that Snapshot Serengeti volunteers identified as civets.

Step 9

Step 10: I had my data; next it was time to select a Tool.  I selected Tools at the top of the page.

Step 10

Step 11: I selected Subject Viewer because this tool allows my to flip through different images.

Step 11

Step 12: Next I had to connect my data source to my tool. From the Data Source drop down menu I selected Snapshot Serengeti 1.

Step 12

Step 13: In order to get a good luck at the images in my dataset I clicked the icon shaped like a fork to close the pane.  I then used the arrows to advance through the images.

Step 13

I flipped through the images and kept track of the night versus day. Of the 37 images in my dataset, I observed that 34 were taken at night and 3 were taken during the day.  This led me to the conclusion that civets are likely nocturnal.  This was so much more satisfying than just going to Google or Wikipedia. A couple of other questions that I explored…

What is the distribution of animals identified at one camera trap site?

14

 

How many honeybadgers have been observed by Snapshot Serengeti volunteers across different camera traps?

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 3.17.28 PM

Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Currently you can explore Galaxy Zoo, Space Warps, and Snapshot Serengeti data using ZooTools. Currently you can use ZooTools to explore data from Galaxy Zoo, Space Warps, and Snapshot Serengeti.  The specific tools and datasets available vary from project to project.  In Galaxy Zoo for example you can look at data from Galaxy Zoo classifications or from SDSS Skyserver. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to have a play with these tools!  What questions would you or your students like to explore?

When Can I Become a Scientist?

Today’s post comes from Virginia Jones, a Zooniverse Teacher Ambassador Workshop participant.  Virginia has taught science at Bonneville High School for 28 years.  She lives in Idaho Falls, ID with her hiking partner, Cleo, a Labrador puppy. She enjoys sharing the excitement of scientific discovery with people of all ages.

Like most 6 year olds, my granddaughter is eager to learn about everything. She is especially drawn to nature and animals. In fact, she wants to be a scientist or a veterinarian when she grows up. One day she said to me, “Grandma, can you teach me science?” I told her that I could do better than that. “You can be a real scientist today, “ I said.

We logged into Zooniverse and chose Snapshot Serengeti. Some of the pictures were beautiful. Many of the pictures featured the rear end of animals, a source of endless laughter for the 6 year old citizen scientist. While I had to maneuver around the site in the beginning, she became familiar with the steps very quickly. She is a very good reader, so in no time at all she was helping with the classification and learning about the animals of the Serengeti.

Her young eyes were able to spot animals that I might have missed. We went through a series of pictures that looked like grass dancing in the wind. On the last picture, I was ready to push the nothing here button when she yelled;”there’s a bird!” I would have missed the guinea fowl in the deep grass but Anne Marie saw it immediately.

We spent a pleasant half hour identifying animals, discussing what it must be like to live in the Serengeti and arguing about which animal’s rear end we were looking at. When we finished, Anne Marie couldn’t believe how easy and fun it was to help the scientists. Maybe next time we will look at galaxy pictures and be astronomers for an afternoon with Galaxy Zoo. Perhaps the ocean will call us and we can explore the ocean floor with Seafloor Explorer. She may even be ready to look for dips in light curves to discover extra solar planets in Planet Hunters.

I am lucky that Anne Marie still needs to have some adult guidance to work in the Zooniverse. I can still spend some quality time with her and she still looks to me as an authority on all things science. It won’t be long before she is leaving her grandmother behind and making discoveries of her own.

You are never too young (with a little help) or too old to enjoy making discoveries in the Zooniverse. Everyone can have the satisfaction of advancing science as a citizen scientist.

My Classroom Experience with Snapshot Serengeti

This post is from Debbie Soltis, a 2013 Zooniverse Teacher Ambassadors Workshop participant.  She teaches 9th grade Integrated Science and Astronomy at Chugiak High School in Chugiak, Alaska.  A 19-year classroom veteran, Mrs. Soltis enjoys presenting a variety of activities and hands-on experiences because she believes students learn best if they have fun and are motivated by authentic experiences. 

I recently uploaded my first Zooniverse lesson plan, Serengeti Ecology.  Since posting the lesson, I actually completed the lesson with my 9th grade Integrated Science students.  I also had a colleague do the lesson with his 9th graders for a total of about 80 students participating.  Two other colleagues are now also planning on using this lesson with their IS9 students. What follows are my reflections on my lesson and our students’ reactions.

My Zooniverse lesson was a supplement to the lessons I have done many times in my ecology unit.  My ecology unit always begins by trying to write a definition for life.  My students brainstorm characteristics of life and are then presented with a hands-on activity examining and testing three sand samples.  The sand samples are made using sand and salt; sand, sugar and yeast; and sand and crushed effervescent tablet.  Since the overall scientific question in the ecology unit is how do the biotic and abiotic factors interact to obtain matter and energy, another short lesson is a mini-field trip outside to observe, collect, and sort biotic and abiotic examples.

I created a worksheet for the students to complete in the computer lab while they explored Snapshot Serengeti.  Before going to the lab, I presented a modified powerpoint introduction to Zooniverse, the Serengeti project, and what they could expect. (Thanks, Kelly—good timing!)  The students loved the project!  They had no difficulties getting on the site, they were fascinated by the variety of unique pictures each of them had to explore, and they enthusiastically wanted to share with their friends or myself some of their more interesting snapshots.  One girl found a rainbow arcing over a wildebeest, another saw the butt ends of two young warthogs, and a third student replayed multiple times the three-frame sequence of a small herd of wildebeest and zebras. My colleague reported similar experiences with his students.  It was a very busy and productive period for all the students.  Several students even said they wanted to continue exploring the site at home! (And I did not even mention extra credit!)

Aside from the animals, I directed the students to look at the other biotic features in the snapshots—the grass, trees, and brush.  Observations led to inferences about the kind of climate the Serengeti has.  Overall, the students really liked the authentic scientific nature of the research being done as well as the fact they were contributing to that effort.  As I continue with predator-prey relationships, limiting factors, carrying capacity and other ecological concepts, I feel this lab has provided a real personal experience that will give them a solid foundation on which to scaffold these concepts. In summary, anyone who teaches a biology or ecology unit can use this site—it was fun, generated excitement, and provided a wonderful learning experience for all!