Learning with Loggerheads: Third Graders Analyze Real-Time Data While Contributing to the Conservation of an Endangered Species

Article excerpt

Kids tracking sea turtles? No, it's not a description for a new nature show on TV, it's a lesson, and it could be happening in your classroom! Sea turtle biologists worldwide are currently working together to track turtles to learn about sea turtle behavior and migration in an effort to conserve these endangered animals. We developed a unit using a modified version of published tracking activities (Sera and Eckert 2005) for third-grade students in which students develop and share computer-generated maps that are based on authentic data. With this information, students can evaluate sea turtle life history, behavior, and environmental hazards, just as scientists are doing today. Now, with only an internet connection, your students can engage in the global mission of sea turtle conservation while at the same time learn about the importance of technology in conservation and understanding of biodiversity.

Satellite Telemetry

Humans are able to track sea turtles across the world's oceans and follow their extensive migrations in real time through satellite transmission technology or telemetry. How does telemetry work? A biologist attaches a transmitter to the carapace (shell) of a sea turtle, usually at a nesting beach. When the turtle surfaces to breathe, the transmitter's antenna sends signals to satellite receivers that pinpoint the turtle's location and migratory pattern. A sea turtle can surface as often as every 10 minutes, sending multiple data points to satellite processing centers. Scientists translate these signals into points of latitude and longitude, which help them monitor and map sea turtle movements. Scientists then post these data onto a collaborative sea turtle monitoring site, www.seaturtle.org, so they can communicate with colleagues globally about sea turtle movements throughout the world's oceans.

This sea turtle site is also accessible to educators on any basic internet server to teach students about sea turtle migration and mapping. In preparation for the activity, it's best if teachers reserve a computer lab ahead of time. In cases where computers are limited, teachers can group as many as three children to work cooperatively or rotate children between computer stations and manual mapping of the tracking points. Teachers are strongly recommended to prepare for this exercise by accessing the tracking data beforehand and modifying the points of latitude and longitude by rounding off to the nearest whole number. It is our experience that if the data are not rounded it becomes confusing for the children to find the specific decimal places to plot.

Preparing to Track

On the first day of the unit, we begin by asking the class about migration: What animals do you know that migrate? Why? Responses are written on the board and typically include whales, birds, and butterflies. Children often explain that migration occurs because animals (e.g., whales) are following their food or are migrating in response to the changing of the seasons (e.g., birds). It is during this first day that students are introduced to sea turtles (Caretta caretta) and the idea that sea turtles also migrate due to seasonal changes that affect water temperatures and food supply. In addition, sea turtles migrate to find a mate and to find appropriate beaches to build nests and lay eggs.

Background information on sea turtle life history, migration, and threats to sea turtle survival can be read together in class and discussed as a whole-group activity. Alternatively, the teacher may choose to send home reading materials for students to read as homework prior to the lesson. Such information can be found in the Sea Turtle Migration-Tracking and Coastal Habitat Education Program educator's guides (see Internet Resources). These readings introduce students to sea turtle tracking patterns. For example, tracking points recorded from land indicate nesting (laying eggs); tracking points recorded offshore of the nesting beach indicate internesting (a female can return to nest multiple times in one season, revealing a zig-zag pattern); and the foraging grounds where turtles feed are clustered tracking points recorded at the end of the migration pattern. …