Virtual Forest Initiative
Beginning in 2009, Black Rock Forest Consortium partnered with Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) to develop a suite of web-based learning tools for undergraduates and for grades 8-12, known collectively as the Virtual Forest Initiative. Faculty members from Barnard College, Columbia University, and the New York Harbor School partnered with Consortium staff and CCNMTL on the development of these modules. For undergraduates, three online modules explore concepts in paleoecology, plant physiological ecology, and forest sampling methods.
Two modules were developed to provide standards-based education and research experiences for New York City middle- and high-school students, with generous support from the Toyota USA Foundation. The Water Chemistry module allows students to investigate factors such as water temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen and their effects on living things. An online graphing tool allows students to plot and analyze data collected by the Consortium’s environmental monitoring stations, and compare it to online data sets from the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. The Mammals and Habitats module provides an online protocol for live-trapping mammals using random sampling at Black Rock Forest, which can easily be adapted for use in other areas. The accumulated data from school trapping teams is being used to create an interactive map detailing the distribution and abundance of mammals in the Forest by habitat type.
The Toyota USA Foundation's generous three-year grant allowed Black Rock Forest Consortium to develop two online biology and chemistry modules, host trainings for science teachers from eight New York City public middle schools and high schools, and provide field work at the "real" Black Rock Forest, in tandem with Virtual Forest modules that reinforced specific concepts and problem-solving approaches. Teachers have stated they value the Water Chemistry module because it allows students to explore and test real-world hypotheses about the Hudson River’s water quality in relation to aquatic organisms, and the Mammal and Habitats module allows students to learn procedures for random sampling and experimental design, while helping them discover where in the Forest different species of mammals thrive. The mammals module capitalizes on the fact that learning to understand the needs and behavior of animals is a particularly engaging opportunity for students to learn scientific inquiry and methods.