Shenandoah Wildlife

In 1997 Karen participated in the Earthwatch Shenandoah Wildlife Project on a teacher's fellowship grant.  This is her report, with particular attention to teaching applications.

Section I—Introduction and Project Summary

At the Conservation and Research Center near Front Royal, Virginia, Bill McShea and his staff are studying the effect of white-tailed deer on other animals within their forest community. At different times of the year, they look at small mammals, forest birds, understory plants, that is those found within six meters of the forest floor, acorns, and deer to determine how these diverse organisms interact and to understand the ramifications of deer density throughout the forest community. The central research question is this: do present densities of deer prevent the proper management of other threatened or endangered species within protected areas? Work is conducted in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Valley, George Washington National Forest, Shenandoah National Park, and the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center.

Bill McShea speaks to the teamThe following methods are used. The deer are fenced out of certain areas through the use of what Bill McShea calls "exclosures" and are allowed to roam freely in the control areas. In these areas, deer are tracked, small mammals are trapped, acorns are collected, birds are caught through the use of mist nets, and vegetation is sampled to determine density and diversity of forest understory and ground cover. Because of the increasing awareness of the relationship among the various organisms and the resultant web of life, many elements must be studied. Specifically, data is recorded in many ways. Deer location is noted on topographic maps and then transferred to a computer data base. Acorn fall is graphed by month and by year. Small mammals are weighed, measured, sexed, and the exact location is noted. Twenty scarlet tanagers were captured, tagged, and released. A grid map is used to plot the location of understory plants in the vegetation studies. Global Positioning System (GPS) is used in all aspects of the project.

How could such a project be of value to a third-grade teacher in a self-contained classroom? There are many applications for a project such as this. I will focus on three of them.

  • The first would be to study how field research is conducted and to apply this to a schoolyard learning experience. A direct study of nature involves hands-on learning. No amount of book learning, videos, or explanations can substitute for field work done with the objective of answering questions. Equally important are the questions students raise.
  • The second possible application of this Earthwatch project would be to provide a real-world use of such things as mathematics, scientific observation and record-keeping, use of communication skills, and art.
  • The third and possibly most important application of this would be to infuse the learning process with excitement and wonder. Seeing a red-winged blackbird for the first time, for example, is something that is meaningful and worth the time invested. Perhaps, doing field work on a smaller scale as a part of the curriculum will lead students to see the importance of the natural world in their lives and spark life-long interest in this area.

A deer in the distanceTo summarize, a project of this complexity has enormous potential for me as a teacher. I can bring the world of the research biologist to the schoolyard. This has many uses in today’s overlapping curriculum. I can combine many areas of the curriculum — language arts, math, science, art, and technology — and avoid fragmented lessons that are soon forgotten, replacing them with exciting, hands-on lessons that will be help children make sense of their world.

Section II—Experiences and Ideas

Freeing a bird from a mist netParticipating in Shenandoah Wildlife was a real learning experience. For many years, I have fancied myself as a student of nature. I love to hike, observe birds, flowers, and trees, and learn new things. This experience was unique in that it made me see how all these things work together in an ecosystem. In our introductory lecture/hike through the research center, we learned about the trees that provided canopy—oak, hickory, and tulip poplar, as well as the understory plants — sassafras, skunkweed, spice bush, and paw paw. This led to a discussion of the deer in the area as we observed the browse line and the plants they fed on in the understory. Although many types of trees were pointed out and identifying characteristics were made clear, the image of the forest as a complex system began to emerge, and I will never again be able to look at anything in the forest as an isolated entity. Thus, my education was begun in ecological thinking that would span the two weeks of my Earthwatch experience and forever change my view of the natural world.

From an historical perspective, we were walking on ground that George Washington, himself, surveyed. The land was also used as by the US Army as a cavalry station for their horses. Much of the land is mowed and is still looks like meadowland. The land is now owned by the National Zoological Park and the Smithsonian Institution and is the home to many endangered species from around the world, such as the crowned crane, Pere David’s deer, and the scimitar-horned oryx. A tour of the center by van allowed us to see animals from around the world that people cared about and brought to Virginia to save. I felt that there was a certain prestige associated with this place.

During the two weeks, we also heard a lecture by the Nature Conservancy of Virginia, and this emphasized how people can be connected to the environment in very real ways and showed the commitment of people who believe in saving places as well as conducting research that will further the understanding of the environment. Another lecture by Bill McShea, focused on his study and examined the results so far. Complete with charts and graphs, this was not the definitive "answer" to all the questions he had as the Principal Investigator. Rather, each question served more to raise a new question or to interject a new variable. On another occasion, Bill showed us his slides of Burma (Myanmar) and the work he initiated there saving the Eld’s deer. This is a fascinating subject and full of the complexities of politics, Eastern culture, third-world poverty, and Western thinking. But, yet again, it showed us the effects of the environment on how people live and the effects of caring or not caring for the world around us.

Working in the GIS labOur days were busy with many activities. They included early morning mist-netting in search of the elusive scarlet tanager, deer tracking, vegetation recording, work at the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) computer lab, and maintenance of the fences on the exclosures. The hardest work, however, is done at George Washington National Forest, three hours to the west of Front Royal. There, I was to test my mettle. A small group is taken out there at a time to help Liz and John who stay at the A-frame for months and trap mammals on a daily basis. To the uninitiated, this work is quite a shock. The terrain is not the rolling hills of Front Royal, which some may think of as already quite challenging. These are real mountains, and to get to where the traps are placed (sites selected by computer), you must traverse rugged terrain. We walked through rocky stream beds, crawled over logs, pulled Karen, happy to be back after a day in the field ourselves up hill by trees and roots, slipped on rocks and mud, grabbed saplings as we lost control running downhill, and fell through deep leaf litter onto rocks and logs underneath. At the end of the first day, filthy and sore, I knew I had survived a rough experience, but I was glad to have done it. The second day involved setting the traps put out the day before, but I was with another person who moved more like I did through the woods and perhaps understood that I was not as young as they were and so I managed better, the terrain being easier too. Our last day in the Allegheny Mountains was also the third day in the trapping cycle—we checked the traps and found deer mice, white-footed mice and shrews. These were weighed, measured, sexed, and tagged in case of a recapture. The data was recorded, since that’s what feeds a field report, a valuable lesson for a teacher contemplating schoolyard field research. We returned to Front Royal in the afternoon, dirty, hot, and tired, but very much more knowledgeable about ourselves and more aware of the dedication that field work in biology requires.

Teachers, as well as researchers, must be concerned with the scientific method, working with the community, and team work. From these experiences, I Tracking a deer by radio have a much better understanding of how scientists obtain their data. I feel that students at a very early age can also learn to observe, record, and compare data. So, these methods will be carried over into my own teaching. While talking to Liz, the coordinator of the Allegheny project, she told me that she had to contact many landowners in the valley to get permission to cross their land in order to gain access to the national forest. This shows cooperation with the community in order to conduct scientific research. Teachers, too, must work with the local community on various projects, such as bringing in resource people or using facilities. Another component of the Earthwatch experience is teamwork; each person has their expertise and responsibilities. People depend on each other to get the job done. Children, too, must learn teamwork at an early age. A project involving field research needs the cooperation of each individual; there are many ways this work can be divided.

The team, Bill McShea in blue shirt at left, Karen at front right.

It is obvious that the experience I had will have lasting effects on my teaching. In-service classes rarely give you hands-on experiences in the lessons of combining scientific research, teamwork, and intimate contact with the natural world. The Earthwatch experience, of course, will forever color my teaching, just as it has my learning.

Section III—Classroom Application and Lesson Plan

You can view or download Karen's lesson plan as a PDF* document.  

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Any questions or comments, e-mail Karen.


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