Photography and Parks in Focus Series (Part 2): Photography as a Tool for Research

By Elena Gustafson, Photo/Video Intern 2011

I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to the outdoors. I like to carry field books with me—recently I’ve become addicted to identifying tracks—and sometimes when naming plants I use their scientific name, without looking it up first.  I like knowing where I am by what’s around me, not just where I find myself on a map. And I love gathering new tidbits about plants and geology and animals (Do you know why the scientific name for yarrow references Achilles? Comment if have the answer or want to know!)

Rebecca getting as close as possible to a sequoia.

So I had a problem traveling across the United States this summer—not that I don’t love traveling, but I found myself a leader in places with which I wasn’t familiar.  Usually on hikes I can use bits of nature as teaching moments, because I’m fairly certain of what the plant or animal or track is.  I can answer questions that participants have, and guide them through the identification process themselves, because I know where to start.  But going from the high desert of Arizona to the Sierra Nevadas to glaciated valleys to gigantic lakeshores?  I fell a bit out of my range of knowledge on some trips!

That’s why photography is such a fantastic addition for Parks in Focus when it comes to science.

Photography acts as a memory tool.  If youth take pictures of plants we taught about, then they have that connection and context for that lesson far into the future. “I remember I took this picture of a yellow flower when we were on Logan Pass, and there was a lot of snow…so it must be a Glacier Lilly!”

Photography helps capture unique moments. Participants at the Grand Canyon have seen condors close up, and have zoomed in to see rattle snakes.  Youth in Montana got some great shots of Columbian Ground Squirrels. Past trips have used motion-activated cameras to “catch” what type of nocturnal animals visited their area. All of these images can be used for education, especially for kids who weren’t there when the animal was!

Photography keeps questions about nature open.  “What’s that flower? I don’t know, but if you take a good picture of it we can look it up when we’re back in camp.” And some kids actually asked for field guides to do this during free time at camp! Having some authority over the learning process, I think, makes the information stick better, and definitely makes you pay attention more. For kids, photography provides a way to gather knowledge, to research, to have some control over their interests.

For me, this aspect of photography is really exciting.  It keeps the path of the learning process going, potentially far into the future—because participants (and leaders) aren’t just limited to the Parks in Focus traveling library for information.  In recent years, a whole host of web databases for “citizen scientists” have sprung up.  With a camera and a computer, you can have your nature-unknown identified for you and submitted as a data point for scientific studies.

For example, this summer we sent a photo by Riley, a Montana participant, into BAMONA (Butterflies and Moths of North America, but the acronym is much cooler). Housed at Montana State University, the project’s goal is to collect data about butterflies and moths in one location, to provide scientists with “easily accessible, digitized, reliable, and integrated species distribution data” and everyday naturalists with credible information about Lepidoptera! (See, I told you I was a nerd, I didn’t even have to look up how to spell that). An expert confirmed for us that Riley’s photo is of a Northern Blue butterfly, and Parks in Focus provided a concrete sighting for the BAMONA database!

Cameras in the hands of ordinary citizens are being used as a research tool by renowned science organizations across the United States. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a whole Citizen Science program that uses everyday naturalists to keep track of bird populations and migrations. Through this program they gather data at an incredibly large scale, one that could never be matched by any ordinary research team.  Programs like Wildlab and Project Noah help people identify what’s around them while building international species-distribution databases.  In NASA’s case, those with an interest in astronomy have helped discover thousands of space objects and anomalies. Citizen Scientists (according to multiple websites we are important enough to deserve a capitalized title) are used for climate research, invasive plant monitoring, and even figuring out how computer simulations can better fold proteins through an online game.

Citizen Science is changing what can be accomplished and discovered through research.  It provides a constant stream of information over a wide-area, creating long-term data sets that University students or funding cannot.  This is especially helpful examining how ecosystems are impacted by climate and development over time.

Photography provides an important role for Citizen Science projects—data quality control.  An image provides a backup if research is disputed down the road, and it provides an easier way to confirm unusual species than written data by non-scientists would.  Some programs, like BAMONA, only accept and confirm a spotting if the species can be verified through the photograph!

I think it’s exciting to be involved, even a little bit, in the research process.  But I never struggled in the science classroom, like many of our participants do.  Photography, I believe, can make science more accessible. Being able to contribute information and easily look it up, as opposed to thumbing through large field guides, allows for curiosity to be captured and followed. As people become involved, even informally, in the research process, education occurs.  Hopefully, some of our Parks in Focus participants continue to gather information with the help of photography after our trips.  Who knows what discoveries they could be part of in the future.

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