Learning with and about Technology:
A Middle School Nature Area

David M. Fetterman

David M. Fetterman is Director of the Policy Analysis and Evaluation Program, School of Education at Stanford University


The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology recently issued the Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States (1997). One of their primary recommendations was to:

1. Focus on learning with technology, not about technology. Although both are worthy of attention, it is important to distinguish between technology as a subject area and the use of technology to facilitate learning about any subject area. While computer-related skills will unquestionably be quite important in the twenty-first century, and while such skills are clearly best taught through the actual use of computers, it is important that technology be integrated throughout the K-12 curriculum, and not simply used to impart technology-related knowledge and skills (p. 7).

A Northern California Middle School with an extraordinary ecology program represents a case example of the value of learning both with and about technology.

The Peterson Middle School Nature Area

In Peterson Middle School, a 1.8 acre science Nature Area was constructed to facilitate the understanding and appreciation of biological and environmental concerns. Veteran teacher Bryan Osborne supervised an effort that has spanned 2 decades. Beginning with a flat field, the school constructed hills, dug ponds, cultivated plants, and designed eight biological communities to demonstrate a broad range of biological and ecological principles operating in the world: Grassland, pond, swamp, redwood forest, riparian community, deciduous forest, portions of a chaparral community, and a bog.

This is a picture 1 of Bryan Osborne introducing visiting middle school students to the Nature Area. Students learn about Nature Area rules before being permitted to explore and examine the eco-system.

The Nature Area provides fertile ground for exploration, discovery, and experimentation. For example, a 13 1/2 foot deep pond (an inland depression containing standing water) provides many environmental conditions to study in its major biological zones: littoral zone (shallow waters around the edge of the pond); limnetic zone (open water around the center of the pond); and the benthic zone (at the bottom of the pond). Students learn that light, temperature, and oxygen are three of the most important variables influencing the type of life in each zone in the pond community. Sunlight can reach the bottom of the littoral zone, supporting rooted plants and filamentous algaes that create an environment conducive to other life such as damselflies and dragonflies, backswimmers, and diving beetles. In contrast, sunlight rarely reaches the bottom of the pond where flatworms live.

This picture captures Bryan Osborne teaching middle school students about the pond.

The swamp (a lowland region saturated with water) represents a significant ecological step between the pond and forest. Students study the dominant vegetation of reeds, grasses, and cattails, observe the algae in the open water around the reeds, and watch the snails feed on these plants, and the birds and fish feed on the snails. They learn that an entire food cycle is dependent on the variable state of the swamp water.

This is a picture of the swamp in the Nature Area. Bryan Osborne's son Jacob is skimming excess pond scum off of the surface of the water.

Several research activities focus on the 3 1/2 feet deep swamp. Because shallow water conditions are rapidly affected by changes in temperature, swamp temperatures (largely generated by the presence or absence of sunlight) are monitored throughout the year. Swamp water warms up rapidly with direct sun exposure. Conversely, swamp water cools quickly at night, in the absence of direct sunlight. The warmer the water the less oxygen it can retain; the colder the water, the more oxygen it maintains. Aquatic animals need oxygen. If the temperature of the swamp is too high and the oxygen too low, the turtles, snakes, salamanders, toads, and frogs migrate to the pond. Students come to understand that temperature changes have implications for the ecology of the entire Nature Area.

Swamp Temperature

At the Middle School, the temperature of the swamp is automatically measured and recorded six times a day and stored in the school's computer laboratory. The Nature Area primarily relies on the use of resistive temperature devices (RTDs) attached to a wooden plank and fastened to the dock. The RTD probes hang in the water from the plank. Traditional thermometers are useful to cross-check unusual readings. Temperature readings are recorded at three levels, ranging from the surface to approximately one foot deep. In addition to the raw data of temperature readings, charts of the rise and fall of swamp temperatures each day are generated. Technology plays a role not only in monitoring and studying swamp temperature, but in communicating these research data to the entire middle school community, the district, and the world.

This is a chart depicting the rise and fall of the Nature Areas swamp water surface temperatures. The temperature range is provided on the left side of the chart and the date and time on the bottom of the chart. MT4 is the surface reading, MT2 is a 6 inch deep reading, and MT3 is a 12 inch deep temperature reading. (The sharp rise and dip at 13:07:14 on July 8, 1997 identifies the moment the temperature sensors were vandalized; helping to identify the individuals responsible.)


File Sharing and the Internet

Web pages describe the Nature Area using text and pictures. They are easily updated and disseminated over the Internet.

This is a computer screen snapshot of the Peterson Middle School Nature Area home page at: http://www.peterson.scu.k12.ca.us/~bosborne/

In addition, Farallon's Timbuktu Pro, a file sharing tool, is used to share this data in real time. This software is currently installed in the school's computer laboratory where students work, the remote site (within the Nature Area), and the system operator's home. It enables a teacher to view the chart of swamp water surface temperature from across campus or even from home at any time (without the need to secure access to the computer facility).

Farallon's free but limited capability Netscape plug-in called Look@Me complements the use of Timbuktu Pro (http://www.farallon.com/). It allows computer users to view each other's desktop but without the ability to manipulate files or exchange programs. This limitation was an advantage in terms of control in this situation. In the process of locating and viewing web pages and using the Netscape Look@Me plug-in to gain access to this data, students acquire new computer skills and come to understand the value of computers in the study of science. This plug-in will allow any computer user in the school, district, or in the world (free of charge) an opportunity to observe and collect relevant ecological and biological data; as long as they have access to the Internet. The free Netscape plug-in has been downloaded (and placed in the Netscape plug-in folder) on machines in the Middle School's computer laboratory (which is where most students work), other parts of the district, and at Stanford University to facilitate communication and access. (The Nature Area had to negotiate district firewall and bandwidth concerns in order to provide this kind of world-wide access. However, these concerns have been resolved.)

This is a picture of Bryan Osborne and David Fetterman successfully piloting the Look@Me plug-in, in the middle school computer laboratory.


The school is currently in the process of experimenting with and implementing another technology: videoconferencing2. CU-SeeMe videoconferencing3, free black and white software from Cornell, is used in the middle school computer laboratory, with plans to use it much as the Global Schoolhouse uses it to facilitate research k-12 throughout the world. (See http://www.gsn.org/cu/index.html)

This is a computer screen snapshot of a videoconferencing consultation with a colleague from the Exploratorium Museum about the Nature Area.

This tool can enhance scientific exchange among middle school students throughout the world. Other ideas in the works include use of a videocam connection to transmit Nature Area activity in real time over the Internet, like EarthCam (http://www.earthcam.com)4.


The Nature Area project highlights the importance of learning both with and about technology. Computers and sensors are used to record, chart, and communicate data such as temperature readings and convey their ecological implications for the Nature Area eco-system. The use of file sharing software and experimentation with videoconferencing software are extending the accessibility of this ecological data. This technology facilitates the use of real-time data, which in turn has motivated students to learn content. Although students spent time learning and experimenting with the technology, their primary task was learning an important lesson about the world's ecosystems.


1 All of the pictures in this article were taken with a digital camera. Pictures and snapshots of computer screens were cropped and transformed into jpegs with Adobe PhotoShop.

2 See also Fetterman, D.M.(1996) Videoconferencing On-Line: Enhancing Communication Over the Internet.

3 See http://cu-seeme.cornell.edu; see also, http://www-leland.stanford.edu/~davidf/videoconference.html

4 See also, Bill's Random Camera (http://www.xmission.com:80/~bill/cgi-bin/camera-list.cgi),

Live Cam Pictures World Wide (http://www.wsu.edu/~i9248809/anthrop.html), and

Peeping Tom (http://www.coolbase.com/peepingtom/index.html).



Fetterman, D.M. (1996) Videoconferencing On-Line: Enhancing Communication Over the Internet. Educational Researcher, 25(4):23-27.

Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States. (March 1997.) President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. Washington, D.C.: Executive Office of the President.


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