Take Note

September 04, 2002 1 min read

Middle of the Road

For most sleepy students, the morning ride to school offers a few more minutes of shut-eye time before the start of a long day. But at the 3,200-student Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., rush hour is prime time for collecting scientific data.

Veteran science teacher Brewster Bartlett asks his 9th graders to monitor the roads for small-animal “roadkill.” Students at Pinkerton, as well as schools in several other states, participate in the project every day for nine weeks. The results are added to Mr. Bartlett’s nearly 10-year-old database on animals killed by motor vehicles.

Using the data, students learn how to apply mathematics to calculate averages, determine the numbers and types of animals killed, and develop hypotheses on why animals are killed in specific areas. In addition, they become familiar with the habits of different species and use the data to discuss traffic patterns, road speeds, and layouts in order to offer solutions to the problem.

Teachers can also use the data to teach graphing, geography, and issues surrounding wildlife management.

The project began when Mr. Bartlett attended a three-week program at Simmons College in Boston in the early 1990s. With a National Science Foundation grant, 40 teachers were trained to use e-mail and asked to come up with an environmental project that could be applied in the classroom. The group chose to study lichens, but Mr. Bartlett found the project unsatisfying.

Then he saw the remains of a dead skunk on a nearby highway and wondered how many other animals had met a similar fate. He discovered that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitored roadkills only for large animals, such as moose and deer. The agency did not have the resources to track smaller animals, so Mr. Bartlett, now known as “Dr. Splatt,” decided to enlist his students.

Since its inception, the privately funded program has reached an estimated 3,000 students a year. During the 2001-02 school year, students from seven states and 17 schools participated. At one point, nearly 80 schools representing students from 3rd grade to college were tracking small- animal roadkills, but a lack of funding reduced the project’s size.

Mr. Bartlett hopes the data will lead to practical steps, such as the construction of animal crossings, to help reduce the number of such highway deaths.

— Marianne D. Hurst