Virtual Fieldwork: Bringing Monkeys into the Classroom  

White-faced capuchin monkeys lounge in the trees in the CurĂº wildlife reserve.

White-faced capuchin monkeys lounge in the trees in the CurĂº wildlife reserve.

In a time when our smart phones and computers are becoming more and more vital to our everyday lives, it only makes sense to utilize them as a portal for education. In January, Professor Mary Baker and three of her students, Christine LaChance, Breanna Canning and Ruby Lazo, traveled to Costa Rica to study white-faced capuchin monkeys. They planned to use their experience to increase and foster interest and expertise in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) among a small group of high school students back home.

Baker and her students spent two weeks in Curú, a wildlife reserve in Costa Rica, located on the southeast part of the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. The reserve is currently home to 232 species of birds, 78 species of mammals, 87 species of reptiles and more than 500 species of plants. Baker has studied the social traditions, social intelligence and fur-rubbing behaviors of white-faced capuchin monkeys for over 20 years.

Over two weeks, RIC students carried out a project designed by MET high school students back in Providence in which they studied the behaviors and food processing techniques of white-faced capuchin monkeys. RIC students also learned about an ongoing conservation project focused on understanding the importance of diversity of microhabitats and small corridor-use by animals in wildlife reserves. Through a third project, Baker and her students helped to develop a strategy to manage trash disposal and reduce the feeding of animals by tourists.

The students' main objective, however, was to pilot a new and innovative concept known as Virtual Fieldwork. Inspired by John Butterill, a photographer who discovered a way to share his photo walks with people whose mobility was limited, Baker realized she could use cellular technology to bring the monkeys into the classroom. While following the capuchins in Costa Rica, her group was able to live-stream video back to students at the MET in Providence. Exploring unique mini-lessons in topics ranging from monkey behavior and ecology or the history of the reserve, the MET students became active participants in the fieldwork experience via Skype. The Providence-based students were even able to direct the camera viewpoints.

Through Virtual Fieldwork, students who are unable to travel nevertheless engage deeply with science education. Baker and her students hope that this approach to fostering interest in STEM education can one day serve as an accessible model for future international collaborations and research.

It's one thing to open a textbook and read about scientific concepts, but it is another thing to actually experience it, they explained.