Education site tracks caribou as a sign of spring

Posted: Sunday, March 03, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- North American school children can keep a close eye on the Porcupine Caribou Herd thanks to a free education Web site.

Journey North, a science education program that uses the Internet to track migration and signs of spring, has hooked up with Alaska and Yukon Territory biologists to make information available about the herd.

Students calling up the Web site can see that caribou cows Cupid, Lupine, Lynetta and Isabella, sporting satellite collars, are hanging out near Arctic Village, 290 miles north of Fairbanks. Lucky, Blixen and Trudy are spread out across the border 150 to 200 miles north of Dawson, while Donner is closer to old Crow.

As the weather warms, the cows will walk north and probably meet on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to give birth to calves.

Journey North is designed to let students observe and record natural phenomena and see how it fits in to life in other parts of the world.

''Students learn that sunlight drives all living systems and explore science through the lens of seasonal change,'' said founder Elizabeth Howard from her office in Minneapolis.

The program tracks three other animals by satellite: whooping cranes in Florida, manatees off the coast of southwest Florida, and bald eagles along the Eastern Seaboard.

Journey North also tracks creatures more likely to be seen outside students' windows. They can follow the migration of robins, hummingbirds and monarch butterflies, reporting in as the animals reach their communities, and record the emergence of plants.

''The project is named Journey North because we're essentially watching spring journey north,'' Howard said.

The program has fans in Alaska classrooms.

''It's the most appropriate use of Internet technology that I've seen,'' said Mike Sterling, sixth-grade teacher at Sand Lake Elementary School in Anchorage.

His students take part in Journey North's tulip program. Using the same type of tulips, and the same planting methods, students monitor when tulips first emerge and flower.

''Sand Lake is usually the last one that blooms,'' Sterling said.

Students of Joyanne Hamilton have used the program to track gray whales, right whales and loggerhead turtles. She has taught students from fourth grade to high school at Innoko River School in Shageluk, about 325 miles northwest of Anchorage.

''It was one of the first Internet, interactive programs that was so attuned to our lifestyle living in the village,'' Hamilton said. ''Everything we do revolves around the changing seasons.''

Shageluk students already know something about migratory habits, keeping watch on songbirds and waterfowl, moose and wolves, and especially, salmon.

''Journey North opened up a whole world of other insights into how to involve elders and other community members into your science program and your language arts program,'' she said.

Journey North material is used mostly in grades four through seven, in self-contained classrooms, where teachers can mix the subject matter into science, math and language arts lessons, Howard said.

Journey North operates with five full-time employees and as many as five more part-timers this time of year. It receives 100 percent of its funding from the Annenberg/CPB, a partnership between The Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) that uses media and telecommunications to advance excellent teaching.

There's also plenty of help from the science community.

''We cannot believe how generous the biologists are -- how everybody is,'' Howard said. Researchers not only share their studies, but review student answers to open-ended questions. The best are posted on the site.

''The kids are really hearing how the scientists think,'' Howard said.

One of the caribou experts is Canadian federal biologist Don Russell of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

''I haven't got a good idea of what I've got myself into,'' he said, laughing, about the Journey North, but he's looking forward to student questions. Scientists can write all number of peer-review papers, he said. ''That's not what's going to make the difference in the long run,'' he said.

Caribou in the 123,000-animal Porcupine Herd can migrate 700 miles. Journey North provides updates on the herd's eight cows every two weeks.

The herd's winter range is south of the tree line, where 70 percent of their diet is lichens, a good source of energy but not protein.

He expects cows to start moving north in late March.

''April tends to be the called the migration period,'' Russell said.

The journey is a critical time for caribou. Not much is available to eat until the snow melts. The animals will start eating cotton grass flowers, a sedge, that poke through the snow, and then willow leaves when they bud out, Russell said.

''The need the protein in the summer,'' he said. ''They need the fresh, green vegetation.


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