By Cale Guthrie Weissman
In April, Think Elephants, a Thailand-based organization that promotes conservation through education, published the results of a study that found that elephants could follow vocal commands telling them to find food hidden in one of two buckets. This suggests that elephants may navigate their physical world in ways that primates and dogs – prior subjects of animal cognition studies – can not. You thought your family pooch was smarter than an elephant? Think again.
Perhaps more surprising is that the academic’s paper’s coauthors were middle school students living and studying at the East Side Middle School in Manhattan. They had formed a relationship with the conservation organization half a world away via Skype, providing an outlet for students to interact with both the elephants and the trained professionals studying them. From there, the students helped formulate and execute their own experiments, which led to the study. The academic paper was published in Plos One, a peer-reviewed, open-access, online journal.
The closest that previous generations of students could have gotten to an elephant was by watching a documentary or visiting the zoo. But advances in telecommunications have changed all that and in the process influenced the way students can learn. According to Dr. Joshua Plotnik, Think Elephants founder and CEO, the camp in northern Thailand is wired for Internet through a wireless router. There’s a Macbook Pro on a wooden table, which is linked, via USB, to an external HD handicam. Using an external handicam means that he can zoom in and out, and bring the camera to the elephants. The group usually communicates over Skype (but have also used Google Hangouts) to link live directly with 12-to-14 year old students at East Side Middle School.
Dr. Plotnik arranges for three to four elephants in the camp to hang out with the students while the handlers (mahouts) feed them. The students can ask questions, see inside the elephants’ mouths, watch an impromptu veterinary check, etc. The publication of the paper paper capped off a “three-year endeavor to create a comprehensive middle school curriculum that educates and engages young people directly in elephant and other wildlife conservation.” More....