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Students Take a Digital Field Trip

August 2, 2008

By Keely Stockett, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

Aug. 2–CHAPEL HILL — For many, the great outdoors offers an asylum from the glare of computer screens and the ringing of cell phones, an excuse to cut ties with the technology that seems to rule our lives.

But a new UNC botany program aims to do exactly the opposite, linking the worlds of nature and technology.

As 14 local college students traipsed through the N.C. Botanical Gardens Friday morning, they observed nature not just with their eyes and ears, but also with their cell phones and digital cameras.

The students will upload the images they snap onto social networking sites, which allow them to share, study and discuss what they observed on their visit.

Known as BOT 2.0, the innovative program is the result of collaboration between the School of Information and Library Science, the UNC Herbarium and the N.C. Botanical Gardens.

The concept hinges on the use of Web 2.0 tools, including Web sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, with which college-aged students are familiar, to educate them about botany and information science.

“There’s a lot going on right now with Web 2.0 technology. The kids are constantly connecting with each other,” said Jane Greenberg, a Francis Carroll McColl term professor in the School of Information and Library Science. “We wanted to take something they look at everyday and attract students to disciplines they don’t know much about.”

The National Science Foundation funded the program, thanks to the efforts of Greenberg and Alan Weakly, the curator of the Herbarium.

The curriculum is presented to the students through a session called BotCamp. The camp has three parts: an initial online component that helps students learn the basics of botany and identify plant types; several on-site visits to places such as the UNC Herbarium and Arboretum; and a final online component that incorporates what the students have learned with information science.

“It’s nice to actually go out and see everything,” said Morgan Robinson, a biology major at N.C. A T. “I’ve gotten more out of it than I did in any botany class.”

Populations underrepresented in college, such as ethnic minorities, were actively recruited from local universities to participate, including N.C. State, N.C. A T and N.C. Central. Unlike Robinson, many of those students have majors unrelated to biology, but they said they now have a new-found interest in the subject.

Greenberg said incorporating Web 2.0 and the principles of information science into the botany lessons helps students see that technology and nature don’t have to be opposing forces.

In fact, Greenberg stressed that botany requires metadata, a component of information science which is, essentially, data used to manage data. It’s similar to library cataloguing, she explained: science uses those same principles of classifying and categorizing.

“We suffer from information overload,” Greenberg said. “By understanding metadata, it takes out some of the anxiety.”

Judging by Friday’s visit, most of the students seemed to like the idea of combining information science and botany with the Web sites on which they already spend much of their computer time.

Though the sun was scorching and the breeze was slight, they didn’t seem to notice. Instead, phones and cameras in hand, they were completely engaged in the nature walk as their guide, Johnny Randall, the garden’s assistant director for conservation, pointed out different plant species and characteristics.

As Buddy Patton, a sophomore at N.C. State, prepared to perform a small field experiment with his group, he admitted he has little experience with the natural sciences.

“I’m in computer science, so the odds of me doing this on a whim are null,” Patton said as he trudged through an overgrown field.

But he said he’s already seeing some of the connections between his area of expertise and the use of information science, thanks to the program.

“This is the first time where it’s actually clicked. I can take what I’ve learned at BotCamp and use it with the work I do,” Patton said. “This is like a learning vacation.”

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

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