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Citizen Science
Whiz Kids
Computers, video games, and other electronic toys? Not for these Pennsylvania kids. They would rather be outside, exploring nature and getting dirty.

 

Corey Husic peers into a clear plastic bag held just inches from his nose, staring at the insects floating in clear liquid. He turns the bag around, pinches it a bit, and whispers, “Cool.”

Around the table eight other very young scientists are emptying green goldfish nets filled with their bounty—moths, flies, and bees—into tiny plastic bags. The pungent smell of rubbing alcohol wafts through the room as they douse their bugs in the preservative. No one has collected bug data from this area of eastern Pennsylvania since the turn of the last century, so the samples are extremely valuable. What’s even more special is that this important work is being done by children ages 10 to 16.

Since Wii, Facebook, cell phones, and MP3 players now rule, most of these kids’ contemporaries tend to prefer staying inside with their electronic toys to running around outside or exploring the woods. Yet the Naturalists’ Club, a group of nature whiz kids, is proving to be the untrendiest of bunches in the most positive way. Spending time outside and unplugged teaches them to appreciate the great outdoors; it also shows them that they can contribute to science.

Besides the bee project, they go on hawk watches and lead nature walks at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, in Slatington, Pennsylvania, where they’re helping revegetate one of the largest Superfund sites east of the Mississippi River.

By summer’s end, they wash and pin the bees in their bags with the help of Anita Collins, a retired USDA honeybee researcher who spent more than 30 years in the field. Collins taught the group how to attract the bugs using water-filled white, blue, and yellow cups set out on a preserve for 24-hour periods. “They’re really excited because their data really means something scientific,” she says. “It’s hands-on research.”

When their work is done, they’ll send their samples to the USDA to be identified and recorded. Last year they caught a Mediterranean carpenter bee, a wood-eating species that had supposedly been eradicated from the area. The Smithsonian may even feature some of their bees in its national collection, which excites the young scientists.

“I think the best way to learn about anything in nature is to just go outside and find it and watch it,” says Corey. “Then you can learn about it from what you can see.”

Not every 14-year-old would be so captivated by the insects, but Corey and the rest of the Lehigh Gap Naturalists’ Club are an exception. A Kaiser Family Foundation report recently found that people between the ages of 8 and 18 are in front of a computer, TV, or other electronic device about 45 hours a week, or 6.5 hours a day.

At the same time a growing number of studies show that kids benefit from their adventures in the natural world. One such study, published in the Journal of Attention Disorders this past August, showed that youths with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder concentrate better after a 20-minute walk outdoors. “A growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways,” writes Richard Louv, who coined the term nature-deficit disorder in Last Child in the Woods and won the 50th Audubon Medal for bringing attention to the issue. Playing outside can also combat the obesity epidemic. Other studies reveal that it stimulates intellectual development, creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking, contends Stephen Kellert, who studies humans and their natural environment at Yale University.

 

Radiating a quiet confidence, Corey often has binoculars around his neck when he’s at Lehigh Gap. Over his strawberry-blond hair he sports a baseball cap that reads, “Eat. Sleep. Bird.” He began birdwatching when he was in a high chair, says his mom. Now an eighth grader, he competes in the World Series of Birding with team members more than four times his age, and leads tours for the Lehigh Valley chapter of the Audubon Society and the Lehigh Gap Nature Center.

Diane Husic, Corey’s mom, who teaches environmental studies at Moravian College, has seen the value of exploring nature and birdwatching when she’s taken her classes and two boys to Lehigh Gap. “I’ve come to believe that birding is one of the greatest ways to develop science skills in young kids and even adults,” she says. They can learn observation, attention to detail, how birds behave, and what makes one species different from another, she explains.

Diane started taking her students to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center in 2004. The 750-acre preserve is downwind from two former zinc smelters, whose emissions coated the mountains with heavy metals, killing everything from trees to bacteria. When scientists and educators began restoring the ecosystem at this Superfund site, they started small, testing different grasses to see which would take hold. Within a year they found grasslands thriving on the hillsides, attracting birds and insects, the first step to growing shrubs and trees. The Lehigh Gap Nature Center, with Pennsylvania Audubon and Lehigh Valley Audubon, recently got a TogetherGreen grant from National Audubon to improve its grassland restoration habitat with native forbs.

On weekends Diane and her husband brought Corey and his little brother, Joren, to the preserve to observe the improvements and get some fresh air. After going on a few hawk watches and hikes at Lehigh Gap, Corey told his parents he’d like to keep track of the birds there. So every week during migration, they drove him to the refuge to do surveys. Corey wrote up his results from his first two years of collecting data for a college course he took in 2007, and he continues to conduct his surveys.

Watching Corey count bird species month after month, Dan Kunkle, a retired high school environmental science teacher who quit his job after 28 years to run the center, hatched the idea of a club for young naturalists. “Corey Husic was actually the kid who got the ball rolling,” says Kunkle, recently named a fellow in the Audubon TogetherGreen grant program. “He was already doing a research project, and that gave us the idea for the Naturalists’ Club. I wanted to have kids like Corey, who were interested in not only learning about nature but in actually doing research, to form that club.”

Although an official roster doesn’t exist, the group now has about 10 members. Aleks Everett, 14, is a tree expert; Corey, 14, is the bird guy; Clare Kubik, also 14, is the reptile and amphibian specialist. “I’m just fascinated by them,” she says, even if she can’t quite pinpoint why. “The one we generally look for is the black rat snake because we’ve seen those a couple times on hikes. They’re a little easier to spot than green snakes or garter snakes, because they’re quite big.” Sean Bankos, 16, and Joren, 10, also take a keen interest in reptiles and amphibians. The others are generalists—for now. Many of them began as nature center summer campers and joined the group because they enjoyed the outdoor activities. “I think the Naturalists’ Club is pretty unique because we are coming together over the environment,” says Clare.

Aleks, in a T-shirt that reads “Toadal chaos” and is covered with cartoon frogs, hikes a trail with friends. He looks intently at the plants and trees. Frogs are hard to take care of, he admits, but he has a tadpole and he’s going to see if this one makes it.

Although Aleks likes amphibians, trees are his love. He points out sumac (native) and butterflybush (not native) and describes the dangers the latter poses to your garden, even if it is pretty. “They can spread like wildfire over everything,” he says. “That’s why you gotta pull these out.” Testing his strength, he rips a few invaders from the ground.

Many of the young naturalists are doing their best to improve the area. Sean did his Eagle Scout project at the center. While his dad was cooking hot dogs on the grill, he and his friends and family dug holes along the path leading to the center. They then carried the plants, handpicked by Sean, to the holes. As a final touch, they covered the walkway with wood chips. The plants are still small, but they’ll grow, Sean says.

 

Corey, net in hand, is hoping to tag a monarch before the day is through. He’s already caught one, but there’s a page of identification stickers burning a hole in his pocket. If a club member captures a monarch, a numbered, fingertip-size sticker is placed on its wing. The hope is that someone will find that individual after it migrates to Mexico, and report back to them. The project, part of Monarch Watch, is led by the Kansas Biological Survey at the University of Kansas. Last year one of the monarchs tagged by the group was found about 100 miles north of Mexico City. None have been found this year—yet.

The difference between people who spend time outside doing things like catching bees and butterflies and those who don’t is obvious to kids like Corey. Of his nature-challenged peers, he says, “I don’t think they really understand what it has to offer and how beautiful it really is, because they never go out.”

Watching the bushes intently for flashes of orange and black, Corey is sure he’ll net at least one monarch. After all, he’s following his own advice: “Just be observant, and everything will fall into place.”

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