Children hunt lizards to learn, help scientists

Posted December 20, 2009 7:37 a.m. EST
Updated December 20, 2009 4:47 p.m. EST

— A discovery by elementary school students in Waterville, Wash., surprised scientists: A reclusive lizard species was alive and flourishing in the local farmland.

Project Education: Edutopia, a partnership between WRAL-TV and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, shows how this discovery led to ground-breaking research by university scientists and elementary schoolers.

Tracking down the Phrynosoma Doulgasii, better known as the horny toad lizard, is a key component of the fourth-grade curriculum at Waterville Elementary.

University of Washington researcher Karen Dvorinch said the program teaches the students reading, writing and math skills.

"When I saw what the kids were supposed to be do at different age levels, I said, 'Oh, we have math, we have science, technology, arts. We have all of these components,'" she said.

Students go out into the field, look for the horny toad lizard and write down the longitude and latitude of each sighting.

"It's not a field trip. When we go out there, the kids know that we're doing real science," Dvorinch said.

Local farmers help, noting the location of lizards on their property. Together, students and farmer enter the data on graphs and charts, pinpointing the time, place and temperature of each sighting.

Dvorinch uses the data in research project called "Nature Mapping."

"I've seen a huge difference when the kids realize that they're our junior scientists," Dvorinch said. "I treat them as junior scientists; I speak to them as junior scientists. I define everything I'm telling them so they can use the same terms when they want to talk to another scientists."

A nature-mapping project has been started for every grade at Waterville Elementary.

"I like to see kids excited about learning, and that's what I see when they're working on a project like this," teacher Diane Petersen said.