The Family Center/La Familia Summer Science Project

A young boy in a orange shirt raises his hand in the back of a classroom, a woman in the front points to the left while other students raise hands.
For eight weeks, students at the Family Center/La Familia were given lessons, games to play, and participated in discussion about the National Park Service, often in a classroom setting.

NPS Photo/S. Sparhawk

Wildlife and remote cameras have tremendous potential for science and stewardship of biological resources in national parks. Dozens of remote cameras are already operating in parks, however the full benefit of many of these cameras may not be realized due to limited capacity to process and analyze the hundreds or thousands of photographs they produce over time. The Community Stewardship Program (CSP) is developing guidance and resources to help the National Park Service (NPS) engage students in the analysis of wildlife camera photos. In addition to returning valuable data for NPS scientists and managers, these Wildlife Camera Student Science projects will aim to connect students to science, nature, and the NPS mission by bringing the wildlife of a national park into their classroom.

CSP conducted the first pilot project aimed at developing this model during the summer of 2017 with 25 students (ages 6-12) from The Family Center/La Familia in Fort Collins, Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park. La Familia is a bilingual organization that provides early childhood education and family strengthening services such as childcare, parent enrichment programs and after-school tutoring. Rocky Mountain National Park is an iconic national park in northern Colorado that preserves majestic peaks, mountain meadows, cascading streams, glacial lakes, diverse wildlife, and a rich cultural history.

The goals of The Family Center/La Familia Summer Science Project were to:

  1. Connect students from La Familia to nature, science, and parks through hands on learning activities and contribution to actual data analysis for Rocky Mountain National Park,

  2. Produce a data set on visitor and animal use at the Rock Cut parking area in the Alpine Tundra ecosystem along Trail Ridge Road based on remote camera images from Rocky Mountain National Park and provide that data to Rocky Mountain National Park staff,

  3. Develop and test a model structure for this type of project and generate recommendations and improvements for future programs.

The Family Center/La Familia Summer Science Project was incorporated into the 2017 summer childcare program offered at the center. Over the first eight weeks, park rangers and scientists from the National Park Service spent one hour each week with the students at La Familia Community Center. The first half of each hour session was dedicated to a learning activity intended to teach concepts related to environmental science and the NPS mission, as well as provide context for the purpose of the data analysis portion of the program. The second half of each hour session was dedicated to processing photos and entering data from the remote camera at the Rock Cut parking area in the Alpine Tundra ecosystem in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The program culminated with a field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, giving the students an opportunity to explore the ecosystems and resources they had been learning about all summer in person! Park Rangers welcomed the students with a bilingual overview of the park and its key features. The students all earned a Junior Ranger Badge after a day of exploring and learning about the many plants and animals that live in the park and how they can help protect them.

A young boy with an orange hat presses his nose to the trunk of a bark covered tree, smelling it
Students learn all about the unique aspects of nature in Rocky Mountain National Park, including the sweet smell some pine trees give off!

NPS Photo/ S. Sparhawk

Schedule:

Week 1:
Introduction to Rocky Mountain National Park
Introduction to purpose and process for photo analysis and data entry

Week 2:
Ecosystems: What are ecosystems, different types of ecosystems, and what is special about the Alpine Tundra ecosystem?
Photo analysis and data entry

Week 3:
What lives in the Tundra? How species that live in the tundra have adapted to survive? Photo analysis and data entry

Week 4:
Foundations of an ecosystems: weather and hydrology in the Alpine Tundra
Photo analysis and data entry

Week 5:
Overview of the National Park Service and the NPS Mission: Rocky Mountain National Park is just 1 of 417 NPS units!
Photo analysis and data entry

Week 6:
People in parks: What you can do in parks and how to stay safe?
Photo analysis and data entry

Week 7:
Science in parks: How we use science to manage parks and why we do science in parks? Process and review data from past five weeks

Week 8:
Review key concepts
Prepare for field trip (what to bring, respecting park resources and rangers, question/answer)

Week 9:
Field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park (full day)

Follow up:
Feedback from students and La Familia staff
Debrief with Rocky Mountain National Park staff
A female ranger in uniform shows an animal skull to a group of boys and girls in a grassy area, surrounded by trees.
A ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park introduced the students to the park through a variety of ways, including a nature hike, movie, and sharing skulls and pelts of animals in the park with them, pictured here.

NPS Photo/ S. Sparhawk

Overall, the project did not produce the quantity of data intended, however there were multiple factors that may have contributed to that outcome. As part of the continued development of this model, potential contributing factors will be reviewed and modified as needed for future programs. One such factor was the wide age range of students participating in the data analysis. Future programs will likely have more targeted age groups so the protocol can be tailored to the needs and skill level of participants. Another factor was the type of photos used and the lack of a pre-existing platform for effective data analysis. Future programs will utilize motion sensored cameras so most, if not all, photos will have wildlife present. CSP is exploring the potential of utilizing an existing citizen science platform created for wildlife cameras. Although we did not meet our scientific objective in this first pilot program, valuable information was learned to improve that element for future projects.

The program was more successful with regard to our engagement goal of connecting the students to nature, science and parks. Junior Ranger Nidia (age 12) wrote us to say, “thank you for taking your time to come and teach us all about how to take care of nature and wild animals, [as well as] teaching us about the different ecosystems and how to identify [different trees].” La Familia Community Center Youth Program Coordinator Wendy Warford reported that the program was “valuable and well worth it.” She continued to explain that as a teacher she is always looking for new ways to connect the students to the world and their community and that this program helped achieve that goal.” Another staff member noted a significant increase in student interest, enthusiasm, and knowledge while out on weekly nature walks as the summer program progressed. CSP is currently developing a participant questionnaire which will aim to provide more direct evidence regarding the impact of participation in future programs.

Thank you to the students and staff at The Family Center/La Familia, the staff at Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Resource Education and Partnerships Branch of the Biological Resources Division for investing time and resources into making this project possible. Students participants and La Familia staff were registered as NPS volunteers.

For more information contact Kelly Coy at e-mail us