by Sandy Frost and Ben Swecker
For many people, a trip to Alaska is the dream of a lifetime. Yet cost and logistics keep many people away. In 2002, a group of dedicated educators joined forces to make such a visit— if only a ‘virtual’ visit—a reality for thousands of children across the Western Hemisphere. Blending good, old-fashioned interpretation and education know-how with technology, the Winging Northward—A Shorebird’s Journey distance-learning project brought the amazing resources of the Copper River Delta, Alaska to a diverse audience. This innovative and ambitious project developed over three years. The following article chronicles the miles traveled, and those yet to come, for this effort.
The Copper River Delta
Each spring, a wildlife spectacle on the scale of the great game migrations of Africa takes place throughout coastal Alaska. Along intertidal mudflats, millions of shorebirds rest and refuel on their long journey to their breeding grounds in western and northern Alaska. These migratory birds rely on critical wetland habitats throughout their journey. Many people are passionate about shorebird conservation and education. No one who has had the opportunity to witness this spectacle can fail to understand the critical need to conserve migratory birds and the habitats that they rely on. Shorebirds, in their spectacular and dramatic migration, can provide a “hook” for educating people about the plight of Neotropical migratory birds and wetlands.
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Copper River Delta to North America’s migratory birds. This productive coastal wetland supports a rich and varied array of fish, wildlife, and human uses. Brown bears stalk the tidal marshes where trumpeter swans nest, coho salmon spawn in groundwater-fed streams, and mountain goats scale the rugged peaks.
Much of this incomparable wetland ecosystem is public land, managed by the Chugach National Forest. Recognizing the significance of the Copper River Delta to the fish and wildlife resources of Alaska, in 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) stipulated the delta be managed chiefly for the “conservation of fish and wildlife and their habitats.” Throughout the National Forest System, there is only one other area with a similar congressional mandate.
Over the last decade, the Cordova Ranger District successfully developed an innovative education and interpretive program focused on the fish and wildlife resources of the Copper River Delta. However, the relatively small number of people reached with their education effort continued to be a concern. In an effort to widen the education ‘net’ and leverage their limited resources, the district gathered a powerful coalition of partners who shared their passion and goals. The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network stepped up to the plate as the lead nongovernmental partner, while the US Fish & Wildlife Service (National Conservation Training Center) provided critical guidance and support. Finally, the linchpin of the effort was the exceptional work of the Prince William Network—an educational institution affiliated with the Prince William County Schools in Manassas, Virginia.
Although these partners brought great energy and vision to the table, they did not bring large pots of money. Instead, the early efforts of the project were focused on securing funding through a number of sources. A project of this scope requires a significant investment. The partners were successful in securing over $100,000 in competitive grants from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the Alaska Coastal Fund, Ducks Unlimited, Wild Outdoor World Magazine, the US Forest Service—Conservation Education grants, and US Forest Service-International Programs. These funds were matched with generous in-kind contributions of labor, materials, and services.
Through the generous support of program partners and sponsors, the entire program was available at no charge to students and teachers.
“Winging Northward—A Shorebird’s Journey” is a comprehensive education project focused around a live, satellite-broadcast “field trip” from the Copper River Delta on May 8, 2002—the peak of shorebird migration. Although the highlight of the project was the broadcast, an entire web of supporting materials was spun around the televised event. The partners launched a dynamic website in November 2001, supported a live webcast, produced supplemental education materials, and developed an evaluation program.
In an age when it is challenging for teachers to arrange natural resource field trips, especially in urban areas, an electronic field trip reaches kids where they are—in the classroom. The ‘virtual’ field trip used satellite and internet technology to beam the shorebird excitement into classrooms in Alaska, Canada, the U.S., Puerto Rico, and Mexico.
Teachers, parents, and students used online monthly activities and entered a poster contest to prepare for the field trip. The website offered a teacher resources center and exciting classroom activities that supported the monthly theme and were correlated to national education standards. Maya, the western sandpiper, was the program and website host and led children through her world as she journeyed from her wintering grounds in Mexico, north, to her breeding grounds in western Alaska.
Just as shorebirds know no boundaries, so did the project reach across the Western Hemisphere. Partners in Mexico provided critical links to the Spanish-speaking world and resource information about the shorebird’s wintering grounds. The website was bilingual and the broadcast was simultaneously translated in Spanish. The English broadcast was also close- captioned.
Interactive elements pulled the students into the wetland world of the Copper River Delta in the grand finale broadcast. Students learned about shorebird adaptations, wetland habitats, and migration across international boundaries. They met biologists and local Cordovans, watched as Alaskan students explored the mudflats and observed the swirling shorebird flocks, and interacted through e-mail, fax, and phone to relay questions and game answers. From the Virginia studio, classrooms won prizes—such as a 4-foot fleece shorebird—during the mystery game.
The project also featured a live webcast during the broadcast. This webcast reached many additional children and was available, on-demand, for six weeks after the live program. The combination of satellite and internet technology assured the broadcast was accessible to the largest possible audience.
Marketing for the project included a full-page advertisement and feature story in SatLink Magazine (the leading publication for distance-learning programs), a full-color brochure sent to schools across the country, numerous notices posted on educational and resource list serves, presentations to professional organizations, and rigorous working of established networks.
Looking back at a project, and analyzing its strengths and weaknesses, is an important step that’s often skipped in education and interpretive projects. Realizing the value of a rigorous
evaluation for future distance learning projects, the partners have developed a comprehensive plan to take a critical look at the effort and share that information with others.
This evaluation includes informal feedback from teachers and students, and a pre- and post- assessment test that will quantify the educational effectiveness of the project. These results are being synthesized, but preliminary results show an excellent educational response. Test results suggest that students showed a 20% increase in knowledge about shorebirds after they watched the program.
The partners are also committed to producing follow-up projects that will leverage the educational value and life of Winging Northward. These projects will be available by December 2003, on a CD and will include a project report, complete curriculum, complete website, an edited version of the broadcast, and supplemental information.
We estimate that well over 300,000 children took part in the live broadcast. Over 850 sites in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico registered for the program. During the broadcast, 1266 emails flooded the network.
Technology makes all the world our backyard. By forming coalitions, rigorously focusing on educational objectives, and celebrating what makes our piece of the world special, the partners effectively reached children across the Western Hemisphere.
Winging Northward brought shorebirds and wetlands to kids who may never have the chance to experience hundreds of thousands of migratory birds teeming on mudflats and swirling in the air. They didn’t come back from the electronic field trip muddy, but they learned that everyone, whether urban or suburban, plays a role in conservation. When the broadcast was over and the shorebirds moved on, students carried with them a little piece of a national treasure—the Chugach National Forest. Our vision is that they will channel that energy into nurturing a local habitat.
For More Information
“Winging Northward—A Shorebird’s Journey” http://shorebirds.pwnet.org/ Chugach National Forest http://www.fs.fed.us/r10/chugach/cordova Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival http://www.ptialaska.net/~midtown/ Sister Schools Shorebird Project http://sssp.fws.gov/
Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network