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version: October 2001

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3. Environmental Science

Concord Consortium's Probesite offers a wealth of ideas on how teachers can use handhelds with sensors to enrich science learning, and these examples are excellent guides for volunteers working on environmental science-related projects in developing countries (tracking and reporting certain chemicals in a river, or tracking migratory animals, for instance). Probesite provides "Handheld Computer Activity Suggestions" that offer suggestions for organizing and planning, reference information, data manipulation and display, data gathering, and communicating and collaborating. The site also provides application reviews and suggestions for handhelds.

The following grants programs are for educators using handhelds, mostly in support of science-related projects, and offer more ideas that could be applied to volunteers in the field:

Louis Liebenberg and a colleague developed software for handheld computers that allows illiterate trackers to record wildlife observations by selecting icons from a set of pictures that depict various species and animal behaviors. With that kind of data, wildlife managers would know where endangered species live, where poaching might be a problem, and where animals might be facing food shortages. Each screen allows the user to record increasingly detailed information, such as how many animals were observed, their sex, what they were doing, and even the types of plants they were eating. Because the handheld computers are attached to the global positioning system, or GPS, the observations can be mapped to show patterns of animal movement and activity. Despite their unfamiliarity with computers, the bushmen have been quick to adapt to the new technology. Many are comfortable using the handheld devices after less than an hour of training, says Mr. Liebenberg, in an article by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. "There's no prejudice or fear of the technology." In addition to protecting wildlife, Mr. Liebenberg hopes that the CyberTracker system can also preserve the ancient art of tracking-which is threatened as bushmen become less dependent on hunting-by making it into a respected, well-paying profession. Mr. Liebenberg has started the nonprofit group CyberTracker Conservation, in Cape Town, South Africa, to make the software available to research and conservation projects, provide training and support, and continue to improve the software. More than 1,000 people have obtained the software in the eight months that it has been available on the organization's Web site. Users can modify the software and add icons that represent the plants and animals in their geographic region. Independent CyberTracker projects have sprung up in the United States and Australia. The next version of the software will allow users to attach a digital camera to the handheld computer and include images with their recorded observations. The software will also include a basic version of the program that children will be able to use to record their plant and wildlife observations for school projects. Solving problems in remote wilderness areas continues to be the organization's biggest technical challenge. Mr. Liebenberg believes that the most important thing a charity can do when incorporating hand held technology is make sure that its software is well designed and as bug-free as possible, so that problems are kept to a minimum.


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