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Down by the River


September 30, 2005 By

Scientists constantly monitor the environment for invasive species that may disrupt the natural order in waterways or other habitats. In the United States alone, approximately 7,000 invasive species in the animal and plant kingdoms inflict an estimated $138 billion per year in damage and control costs.

Zebra mussels invaded the Great Lakes in 1988, causing government agencies to spend as much as $1 billion between 1989 and 2000 to fight the non-native mollusks' spread.

Vital Signs, a program developed by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) in Portland, Maine, provides handheld computers to middle- and high-school students to electronically collect scientific data on aquatic environments, helping arrest the spread of non-native species.

Vital Signs -- in Maine schools for four years -- went international in 2004 to seven primary schools in Ireland, where zebra mussels are also a problem.

A Bright Idea

Sarah Kirn, Vital Signs program manager, said that Alan Lishness, GMRI chief innovation officer -- and car buff -- got the concept for Vital Signs after attending a car race. He watched a pit crew using handheld computers to download information from the racecar's sensors, then realized students could use handheld computers to gather scientific data for schools and the GMRI -- then known as the Gulf of Maine Aquarium -- as environmental research.

In 1998, the Gulf of Maine Aquarium turned to Pulse Data Systems, which created the Vital Signs software for Palm handheld computers. The software allows for data collection using peripheral technologies, such as a GPS receiver, then forwards the data to an integrated database.

Field Work

Vital Signs piques student curiosity about their environment by using methods that interest them -- namely computers, said Kirn.

"If you take a computer and get the students' attention, then lure them outside where there is something important to learn, you've engaged them in a different way," she said, by incorporating technology with the outdoors.

The program also gets students thinking about their environment and how they can help maintain it. Describing the experience as a "hands-on science lab," Gretta McCarron, Vital Signs project officer in Ireland, explained that students using the program gain a sense of ownership and responsibility for streams in their area -- especially when they learn about the negative effects of pollution on natural habitats.

Using traditional methods of scientific observation such as tape measures, depth meters, thermometers and pH probes, students record the resulting data in the Vital Signs software using their handheld computers. The data is then time and date stamped, and is easily transferred to a database.

Vital Signs Ireland uses Palm Zire 72 PDAs with GPS Navigation Pak, Bluetooth technology, built-in cameras for taking photos and video, and microphones for audio recording.

In the field, students first record their location using the GPS receiver. Then they observe weather conditions; stream characteristics such as width, depth and flow rate; water temperature; air temperature; water pH; the type of stream bed; and information regarding the surrounding habitat, such as how the land is being used and the vegetation and animals in the area. Students record all observations on a monthly basis, and they can call up the informational text and photos stored in the handheld as a guide.

Once finished, students return to the classroom and hand over their computers so teachers can upload the information to the Vital Signs Web site, where it is available to anyone interested.

In Ireland, this includes fisheries and industries such as farming that monitor how their actions affect nearby waterways.

The GIS-enabled Web site, currently maintained by Northern Geomantics in Maine, arranges data in a geographic context on a map based on the GPS receiver's position when an observation was recorded. Eventually the Web site, based loosely


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