Janesville students combine new tech with old ways to watch birds

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

— Eight-year-old Malina Thompson overflowed with questions.

“Why are ducks water birds?”

“Why do birds know how to swim right away?”

“Why don’t robins like water?”

Volunteer Nancy Stabb somehow managed to keep up with just the right replies as she pulled out a birding book to show Malina a photo of a mallard duck.

That’s when 9-year-old Tessa Sennett picked up a greenish tuft from the riverbank and shouted: “Is this a girl feather?”

If it’s Tuesday morning at Janesville’s Wilson Elementary School, it’s time for the birds. During June, mentors such as Stabb are introducing 60 students to the popular pastime of bird watching along the Rock River, lagoon and wooded hillside behind the school.

Not only does the activity get children into nature, it also teaches technology.

Kay Deupree has worked with summer school kids in the past. She and others in the Fourth Ward and Look West neighborhoods arranged to have children plant vegetables at the school garden.

Earlier this year, Deupree attended a birding conference where most of the audience had white hair. Members of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative and the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology asked members: What can we do to get children interested in the natural world?

Deupree contacted Shelley Gard, technology teacher at Wilson summer school, to propose the bird-watching idea. Soon, they had a plan.

“Shelley is going to take what they glean from their bird walks and use it in their technology education,” Deupree said.

Deupree is amazed at how seldom some children interact with the natural world.

“If we are going to do any preservation of habitat for birds, we need people who care,” she said.

Her hope is that if children begin to appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of birds, they will understand that they need places to live.

Deupree enlisted a handful of volunteers with some knowledge of birding to guide the children, who are in second through fifth grades.

On their walks by the river and lagoon, children identified seagulls, geese and mallards. They spotted a black coot swimming away rapidly with a pumping motion of the neck.

Eight-year-old Kyla Smith stood quietly and watched.

“I’ve seen robins,” she declared, explaining that she has watched birds in the trees at her home.

Then her friend asked the inevitable question:

“Why are their stomachs red?”

On their first walk a week ago, students learned how to use binoculars borrowed from the Welty Environmental Center and Green Rock Audubon Society. They pointed them at signs to learn how to focus. In addition, Gard carried an armful of iPads, loaded with a special bird-watching app.

“You can use this just like a field guide,” she explained. “And you can use it to take photos, video of the birds or to capture sound.”

In addition, the iPads record questions from children. At the end of the month, students will put together projects on their bird-watching experience.

“I’m anticipating they will be as movies with answers to questions about birding,” Gard said. “They can use the iPads to have deeper learning experiences.”

Technology no longer confines them to the classroom or a computer lab.

“The tools are right there with them,” Gard said. “When they have questions, they can look up information right away.”

She is impressed by the things her students ask.

“More important than the technology is their inquiry and problem solving,” Gard said. “That is the skill we are targeting.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

Last updated: 7:52 am Monday, July 29, 2013

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