Seventh graders gather data to document the plight of a small mammal that could be on the brink of becoming endangered, and interpret the experience through presentations, models, video, art, and poems.
Cute. Local. Threatened by climate change. The phrases that describe pikas, a rodent-like mammal that lives in Utah’s mountains, sounded like a winning combination to Niki Hack, a seventh grade science teacher at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE). She had been searching for ways to engage her students, who can find it hard to think beyond their immediate world. After listening to their conversations, Hack saw an opportunity to tap into something they care about.
“One of the things I notice about kids this age is how much more aware they are of environmental things than I was growing up,” she says. “If you ask them what they are concerned about, it is global warming and things like that, even if they can’t articulate it.”
For the past two years, Hack has been teaming with Johanna Varner, a cheery University of Utah graduate student known as “Pika Jo”, to help the middle schoolers collect data on pikas, which could be on the brink of becoming endangered. One day each fall, sixty-plus seventh graders take a field trip to the Uintas or Wasatch, some visiting the mountains for the first time. At designated study sites, they perform vegetation surveys, observe the animals, and document where they live by using global positioning system (GPS) units to record positions of haypiles, each representing an individual pika’s food source for the winter.
“There isn't anybody else conducting this kind of monitoring every year in the state, so the kids are actually advancing our understanding of pika status and distribution in Utah,” says Varner.
Looking like a cuddly cross between a hamster and a rabbit, pikas have been steadily disappearing from mountains in the American West for the past forty years. The prevailing hypothesis is that rising temperatures caused by climate change are driving the animals to cooler, higher elevations. With a high resting body temperature of 104˚F, they can't tolerate environmental temperatures of over 75˚F for more than a handful of hours. Already living near the tops of this state’s mountains, it is a matter of time before pikas may simply have no place left to go.
In 2010, pikas were denied protection under the Endangered Species Act partly due to insufficient data documenting population declines across the mountain ranges in which they have historically lived. Hack says that one day, the students’ work may be incorporated into published research and could even be used to decide whether pikas deserve an endangered species listing.
Before the field trip, the pika story seems abstract and the students are disengaged, says Hack. “After they see the pikas, they have a million questions. They become super passionate and outraged that they didn’t make the Endangered Species list.“ She adds that the weekend after the field trip, a number of kids bring their families to the pika study site to share their experience.
Back in the classroom, the students perform additional research, some working with teachers in other subjects to explore their new interest in different ways by creating movies, art, or writing poems. Believing that the kids get more out of the experience if held accountable, Hack brings them to the University of Utah to present their work to scientists. “Each year I’m nervous that they won’t be ready,” says Hack. “But they always come through.”
*A villanelle is an example of formal verse with a controlled rhyme scheme. It consists of 19 lines over six stanzas. Line one and three of the first stanza are repeated throughout the other stanzas. The final couplet use lines one and three again.