Classroom Technology

U.S. Students Skype to Thailand for Environmental Science Lessons

By Sean Meehan — May 17, 2013 2 min read
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Middle school students, most of them digital natives, are pretty comfortable using online video chatting. Usually, though, they aren’t engaging with elephants.

At East Side Middle School in New York City, science students have the opportunity to participate in a program in which they video chat with an elephant conservation camp in Thailand via Skype. During the chats, the students observe the elephants’ behavior, ask questions, and design and conduct experiments.

“When it comes to Skyping directly with the elephants it’s really a treat for the students,” Josh Plotnik, the founder of Think Elephants International, said in a Skype interview. “We bring the elephants literally right up to the camera and it gives kids the opportunity to ask us direct questions.”

The program also seeks to get students actually involved with the research. Recently, the East Side students who participated in the program contributed to a published paper exploring the ways in which elephants communicate and receive cues.

Plotnik, who is currently living and researching at a Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation camp in Thailand, founded Think Elephants International as a way to get students around the world involved in conservation research and education projects. When he started the Skype classroom program, he reached out to longtime friend David Getz, the principal of East Side Middle School.

Getz and Plotnik met when Plotnik was eight and Getz was writing children’s books.

“I mentioned in the dedication to one of my books that I had a hamster,” Gets said. “He wrote me a letter saying he read the book and also had a hamster. I had my hamster write back to his hamster and we kept in touch as he grew up and became more involved in animal science.”

Plotnik moved from hamsters to elephants and upgraded from writing letters to Skype and began looking for ways to bring his research into classrooms. He found that Skyping with the elephants is a great way to generate student interest and passion about conservation.

“The elephants will always be the conduit for attracting children into the program and engaging children in conservation, but we want students to realize that even in their local communities there are important programs going on,” Plotnik said.

The program also retains student interest by making them a part of the research and giving them real experience as opposed to simulation.

“The kids love elephants and it sounds like so much fun, so they’re drawn in that way,” Getz said. “Then they stay and keep coming back I think because of the authenticity and the respect they get.”

Although Think Elephants was the first Skype-based project at East Side Middle School, the school has since used Skype for various other purposes. The school holds weekly Skype conferences with its sister school in Kibera, Kenya, and recently used Skype to allow students to interview a World War II veteran.

For Plotnik, Think Elephants is part of a larger effort to get students more involved with their science work, and specifically with conservation and environmental efforts.

“It’s a way to educate the next generation on how important conservation is through research,” he said. “In the long term, I want to have an impact on how science is taught in school to a more project-based approach.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.