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Winter 2009

 

WRCP grants at work

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Take a (virtual) walk where the wild things are ... with CRITTER QUEST PA!

by Kathleen Paul, Director, Pa. Center for Environmental Education (PCEE)

Pennsylvania’s rich natural heritage offers its citizens unique opportunities to appreciate wildlife. Seventeen million acres of forest and other natural resources provide a variety of habitats for the diversity of wildlife that populate our ecosystems. Bald eagles, black bear and bobcat are among the 468 vertebrate wildlife species native to the state’s mountains, woods, skies and wetlands. Even the largest urban areas contain thousands of acres of forested greenways. If you are fortunate enough to live in Pennsylvania, nature is literally in your backyard.

However, most Pennsylvanians will probably never see a bald eagle, black bear or bobcat (except possibly in a zoo) and have a hard time relating to these animals’ importance as part of the larger ecosystem. Many inner-city youth hold a wildly inaccurate vision of what species lurk in Pennsylvania’s forests (lions? tigers? anacondas?), but have no practical experience to prove these theories wrong. Biodiversity has no real meaning for someone who never has an opportunity to explore it firsthand -- and few individuals have an opportunity to actually "experience" the critters that populate our wild places.

The best solution is to gather up the students and treat each to an intensive outdoor environmental education program, where they can observe wild critters and their varied habitats. Since this is practical only on a very limited scale, a more cost-effective alternative is to provide them with a virtual experience that is as visual and interactive as possible. New map-based computer software called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provides a platform for exploring a wide array of geographical and biological data in one captivating program. So fire up your computer and grab your mouse -- we’re going on a Critter Quest!"CRITTER QUEST PA" (found at www.critterquestpa.com) is a unique online educational program developed to help Pennsylvanians -- especially middle school students -- better understand and appreciate the natural diversity that surrounds them. Funded by a grant from the Wild Resource Conservation Program and developed by the Pennsylvania Center for Environmental Education (PCEE), CRITTER QUEST PA combines cutting edge technology with scientific data to create an interactive, online mapping experience for students.

Users embark on their "critter quest" by accessing information through a map interface. Their first step offers them an overview map of Pennsylvania that serves as the basis for displaying the data that they select. A few points and clicks on a list of data layers, and users have created their own customized map of the state.
Available data layers include Pennsylvania rivers, watersheds, roads, school districts, land cover (agriculture, forests, urban, etc.) and cities. Any number of data layers can be selected at one time, although it is best not to display too much information at once so that the map remains clear.

Working with the navigational tools and map layers, users can visually explore many relationships related to the ecosystems of Pennsylvania. For example, you might click on "PA Cities" and "Land Use/Land Cover," and then examine the map to discover relationships between agricultural lands and urban areas. Or you could choose to explore your own county, clicking on various layers to learn which watershed you live in, which rivers are nearby, where to find nearby parks, or the topography within your school district.

The real power of Critter Quest PA lies in its ability to overlay this information with the habitat ranges of the 468 species of amphibians, birds, fish, mammals and reptiles that share Penn’s Woods with us humans. You can generate a list of species that might live in your county or select a list of all of the critters that might be found somewhere in the state. Clicking on the checkbox in front of a critter’s name on this list will generate a colored layer on the state map, showing the critter’s "preferred habitat" (i.e., places where it would most likely be living). By checking more than one critter, you can compare and contrast the ranges of a variety of species.

Every new map is generated dynamically by the online software, allowing the user to explore a seemingly endless variety of information in pursuit of an endless variety of questions: Where in the state might a bobcat or a mink or a bald eagle be living? What’s the relationship between human population density and the habitat of endangered species? How do rivers and land formations shape watersheds? And (everybody’s favorite question) what critters might be living near my home or school?

Clicking directly on a critter’s name will open an information page that contains a picture of the critter in question, its Latin name, its habitat throughout the state, and at least three links to more detailed information on the Internet. Whenever possible, the first link takes the user to a Pennsylvania-based website. These external links provide more in-depth information about the species, including its range beyond Pennsylvania, its breeding and migratory habits, and its habitat requirements. We hope to include more links in the future, including references to more scholarly databases.

Although the program was developed for middle school students, children and adults of all ages can enjoy using this educational and fascinating online tool. Pennsylvania’s hidden wildlife resources begin to come alive as the user zooms in on favorite parks and natural areas. Teachers report that students become personally engaged in learning about the environment when they are able to "explore" it online.

For educators, Critter Quest PA provides a flexible and captivating tool for bringing Pennsylvania’s Environment and Ecology Academic Standards to life. The program can be used for individual exploration or built into a lesson plan. The interactive online format engages students, generating a sense of curiosity and excitement about natural science, as they explore the biological and geological systems that make up the environment that they inhabit every day. Critical thinking skills are encouraged as students develop and then test their hypotheses against the available data.

screenshot of beaver page on critter quest
Every critter has its own information page, including a picture, a PA distribution map and at least three links to more detailed information on the Internet. CRITTER QUEST PA is at www.critterquest.pa.com.

Beyond that, Critter Quest PA is just FUN to use! Who hasn’t wondered what critters might be living inside the forest or under the water -- just out of view? Children and adults alike experience a renewed sense of wonder as they ask and answer their own questions about the natural world in which they live.

That being said, it’s also important to understand the limitations of the Critter Quest data. Not intended as a scientific survey instrument, Critter Quest PA is a teaching tool meant to spark the imagination and encourage further exploration into more scholarly materials and the outdoors. Although the most current available data forms the basis for the informational overlays, the program is not meant for serious scientific research or environmental impact analysis. And it’s important for students to understand that they can’t expect to see a bald eagle in their schoolyard just because Critter Quest showed that eagles "might" be living there.

Base map layers used in the program are derived from publicly available geospatial data sets and most are accurate to 2006. Critter data layers are derived from Gap analysis data developed by the Pennsylvania GAP program and obtained from PASDA, the Pennsylvania Geospatial Data Clearinghouse.

"Gap analysis" is a scientific method for identifying the degree to which native animal species and natural plant communities are represented in a location. It involves identifying the species’ habitat needs and then matching this information with available habitat. In other words, the critter data doesn’t actually tell you where the critters ARE -- it tells you where the critters MIGHT be, given the species’ habitat needs and the available habitat at that location. It is the strongest tool that we currently have available for predicting species distribution across the state and more than adequate for the intended purposes of Critter Quest PA.PCEE was recently awarded a second grant from the Wild Resource Conservation Program to develop educational materials to enhance the Critter Quest PA program. In partnership with the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment and Jane Kirkland (award-winning author of the "Take a Walk®" series of educational books), we will be developing wikis and interactive online activities to support teachers in presenting the environmental concepts illustrated by Critter Quest. We hope to create a way to have students post their own findings (such as their school’s GIS coordinates, photos of critters that they’ve observed within their county, and the results of research that they’ve compiled) on a classroom data layer.

We have also applied for another grant to fund the development of outdoor field projects based upon Critter Quest PA, encouraging students to leave the computer behind and look for critters in the real world. Information about this and other educational projects now underway will be posted on PCEE’s monthly electronic newsletter, available free at the PCEE website (www.pcee.org).

In the meantime, Critter Quest PA received over 330,000 hits during its first four months online -- serving almost 1,500 Pennsylvanians and visitors from as far away as Italy, China and the Russian Federation. Feedback from users through our online survey remains positive and site activity statistics remain strong.

Combining the best of new technology with the natural curiosity about our surroundings shared by all two-legged critters, Critter Quest PA is a teaching tool that will remain fresh and engaging for students of all ages as they explore Penn’s Woods online. Visit us today at www.critterquestpa.com.

 

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