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Discovery Education blog: VR apps for classroom conservation

Virtual Reality can take students out of the classroom and into entirely new lands, environments and experiences — from global travel to outer space — and it is primed to be the next big learning opportunity to integrate into the learning environment. (The ‘New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology’ report published by the World Economic Forum identified VR as a key opportunity for technology to be used in the advancement of social and emotional learning [SEL].)

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vEcotours VR app used in class at Cambridge Elementary School

There is a wealth of fantastic, educational material available for students to immerse themselves in, and I’ve been getting to grips with that from Discovery VR, the Natural History Museum, London (which I’ve previously written about here).

For a recent post on Discovery Education’s community blog, I looked at vEcotourism, which offers virtual tours across the globe to see endangered wildlife in their natural environments. They have recently introduced a new ‘kid’s version’ of their Mount Elgon virtual reality tour to visit the world’s only salt-mining elephants.

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This particular version is narrated by children and has been trialed in classrooms alongside project work to ‘adopt’ some of their other tour locations, challenging students to research the habitats and the species that live within them, and produce their own voice-over narration.

Read the full blog post here: http://blog.discoveryeducation.com/blog/2016/09/14/what-to-do-with-web-2-0-tools-vr-apps/

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Making an impact with bee hotels

June is a rather special month for Discovery employees, as the entire, global team simultaneously takes part in a day of giving back to the community, known as Impact Day.

This year, the volunteer project that I chose to participate in involved making bee hotels with a local school, Granton Primary.

Impact Day employeesI didn’t really know much about bee hotels or how to make them before Impact Day, so it was surprising to me to learn just how simple it was.

Firstly, the type of bee we were making the bee hotels for, solitary bees, do not live in a hive. Instead, they nest in sandy banks, hollow stems and wood. Bee hotels replicate hollow stems and provide a safe environment for the bees to nest, where they won’t be accidentally disturbed by humans or exposed to predators.

Crafting bee hotelsWe cut the tops off of 1 litre plastic bottles, securely taping thick tape over the sharp edges (to prevent any of the schoolchildren from accidentally cutting themselves), and then began the process of rolling sheets of paper around a pencil, to keep the hollow tubes as thin as possible.

Once the tube was rolled, the end of the paper was stuck down with sellotape, to keep it from unraveling, and then cut down so that when each tube was stood up inside the bottle, they would be shorter than the bottle’s edge. Apparently this means the bees will lay their eggs inside the protection of the ‘bee hotel’, rather than in an exposed bit of paper, which a bird can still easily access with its beak. It was important to pack the tubes in tightly, so they wouldn’t move around.

13427878_628945350603346_6972904180356332766_nGranton Primary School focus heavily on eco and environment in their studies, and their pupils came armed with information about solitary bees to teach us adults, and had even made quizzes to test our knowledge!

One of the things I was surprised to learn is that solitary bees do not sting! I was definitely under the impression that all bees stung before! But then, I wasn’t previously aware that there are so many species of bee in Britain either (approximately 250!), so assumed they all had the same characteristics. Turns out, they don’t.

Pupils quizzing the teamSo why is it important to protect bees?

As pollinators, bees help to produce more than three-quarters of the world’s crops, but they are under threat due to fewer suitable nest sites and fewer wild flowers. There has also been an increase in pesticide use in the UK. Of the approximate 250 bee species in Britain, 25% are listed as endangered.

IMG_0332It feels so important to do something as simple as making (or buying) a bee hotel, and hanging it in your garden. The paper tubes will need maintaining (replacing) at the end of the summer, but again, it really is simple!

I loved learning all these bee facts at Impact Day this year, and feel like I’ve only just brushed the surface of the issues that bees are currently facing in today’s world. Fortunately, I came across some further reading on Wildlife Kate’s using Wildlife to learn blog for Michael Drayton Junior School (who I met at the UK Blog Awards in April). It just so happens that this week, she’s discussing what happens in a bee hotel, which for me, is a perfect follow up to my Impact Day with Discovery Education UK, of learning from pupils!

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Watching a Discovery Education video on bee hotels.

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The ultimate race against time…

Today, the force of nature documentary that is Racing Extinction gets its UK dvd release.

I know I’ve raved about Oscar-nominated Racing Extinction on this blog before, but I have a special attachment to it, having worked on the Discovery Education school resources to accompany the film, and therefore having been invited to the UK premiere.Racing Extinction dvdRacing Extinction takes a candid look at the threat of the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction, and the global warming conditions that are likely to ignite it.

By looking at the historical scientific evidence that caused the previous mass extinctions (including the most infamous; the dinosaurs), film maker Louis Psihoyos (Director of The Cove) suggests that our planet’s current rise in temperature means we are sitting on a ticking time bomb.

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By examining issues such as the carbon emissions of farming and city traffic, the environmental impact of overfishing and the negative change to the ocean’s acidity levels, Psihoyos sets about finding ways to reduce humans’ impact on the planet, and effectively slow down the clock that we started.

‘Better to light one candle than curse the darkness…’

Racing Extincition comes with a very important and empowering ethos — that by working together to make change, we can all play our part in reversing some of the damage and destruction our planet has faced.

It is perhaps this message of hope, and the practical suggestions that we can ‘StartWith1Thing’ to really make a difference, that has made the film so popular. After being aired on the Discovery Channel across the globe, Racing Extinction became the most watched documentary of the last three years!

racing extinction quoteI recently had the opportunity to deliver a whole school assembly on the #StartWith1Thing movement, joining with one of the partners of the film: the Born Free Foundation, to inspire the next generation of ‘wildlife warriors’.

Assembly Claires CourtOne of the things that makes me so passionate about the Racing Extinction film and movement at large, is the time and care it has taken in using the opportunity of the documentary release to educate.

There are many things that I, myself, discovered for the first time while watching and researching this film (I’ll avoid giving too much away here, though), and by helping to create school resources that fit into the secondary school level National Curriculum, I felt like Racing Extinction is really making a difference.

For those who are interested in how Discovery is using Racing Extinction in the classroom, an on-demand virtual field trip is available here:

Racing extinction virtual field tripThe hour-long lesson fleshes out some of the important and relevant issues raised in the film, and challenges students to consider three areas where they can make a change, by asking:

What do you consume?
What do you dispose?
How did you consume your energy?

Racing Extinction is available to buy or download here.

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Inspiring the next generation of wildlife protectors

Last week I had the fantastic honour of representing Discovery Education (for whom I work whilst wearing my 9-5 hat), in a special Racing Extinction assembly delivered to 300 young people at Claires Court Senior Boys School in Maidenhead.

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As part of my role at Discovery Education, I worked on the school resources for Racing Extinction – sub editing the content of all the lesson plans and presentations that supplement our chosen clips from the documentary. I also sub edited the descriptions/blurbs that went with each of the clips and the marketing material and public site, too.

2I knew that some of the assembly audience would have used these in their classes, but for those who weren’t entirely familiar with the documentary, I began the assembly with a trailer, before going on to explain that I’d actually spent time out in South Africa, at game reserve called Shamwari — to help work on conservation issues faced in the wild.

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For this particular talk, and given that I wanted to focus on the content on the actual Racing Extinction documentary, the main body of my presentation was about two specific animals – the polar and the manta ray.

I divided the room in half (a little trick given to me by Will Travers), with one side of the room representing the polar bear, and the other; the manta ray. I then read out 10 facts, asking students to declare whether the fact I had given was about their animal, by way of a show of hands.

The idea was to dispel myths and insert knowledge.

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Facts:

  1. The normal life expectancy of this animal in the wild is 40 years = manta ray
  1. The average weight of this animal is 1.4 tons = manta ray
  1. This animal mainly eats seals, which they catch using their remarkable sense of smell = polar bear
  1. This animal’s natural predator is the killer whale = manta ray
  1. There are 20,000-25,000 of these animals remaining in the wild = polar bear
  1. Global warming – resulting the rise of sea levels, sea temperatures and acidity of the sea has affected the availability of this animals main food source = both
  1. Climate change is currently the greatest single threat to this animal = polar bear
  1. Hunting by humans is a big threat to this animal. In the early days, they were hunted and killed so that the oils could be extracted from the body = manta ray
  1. This animal has international protection after CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) listed it in their appendices in 2013, meaning that their trade is heavily restricted = manta ray
  1. Finally, this animal shares its habitat with Ships and tankers of all kinds. Most of these ships use something called heavy fuel oil — meaning the animal is at great risk from leaks or spills which would be catastrophic to its environment = polar bear

I was surprised (and delighted) to see how well received the game was, and how much the students both engaged and considered their answers.

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As Born Free Foundation was a partner of Racing Extinction, working with Discovery to promote the film, I asked their policy advisor Dominic Dyer to join me as a special guest, speaking about important wildlife issues at home and abroad, the influence of films such as Racing Extinction, and how the young people in the room are the ones with the knowledge and the power to reverse some of the mistakes made by their parents’ generation.

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Thank you kindly to Claires Court School for inviting us along and for all the positive feedback we received! And thank you to Dominic for providing such fantastic and inspiring call to arms.Assembly Claires Court

Learn more about Discovery Education’s Racing Extinction resources here.

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Conservation: the cons, count downs and continuations

Unsurprisingly, BBC Wildlife magazine is a favourite of mine.

I’ve long enjoyed the columns and comments from BBC animal activist favourites, such as Simon King, Chris Packham and formerly Bill Oddie.

imageIn the summer, I read the magazine’s list of Britain’s top 50 conservation heroes with much interest and curiosity, furiously researching the names I hadn’t heard yet. I even managed to get my prized copy signed by number 4 on the list, Sir David Attenborough.

imageAttenborough found himself two places behind Chris Packham, who sat in 2nd place. A regular on Springwatch, a vocal opposer of the abuse seen on television shows such as I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here!, and a staunch campaigner against the bird hunting season in Malta, Packham seems to represent a great example for the generation who will eventually step into the giant footsteps of the likes of Attenborough and list-topper Jane Goodall.

imageBut something didn’t sit quite right for me.

In the very same issue, which contained bold statements from Sir David (he suggested that human beings are a plague on the planet), Packham is given an entire page to air the comparatively main stream and highly anti-conservationist view that zoos work well to educate the masses.

Zoos. Work well. To educate the masses?

10410128_321599458004605_7335837426737654323_nAs someone who KNOWS, first hand the damage that zoo environments inflict upon animals and the hard work that organisations such as the Born Free Foundation have to do to reverse just some of less-long lasting psychological effects these creatures are left with (and sadly most of the damage IS long-lasting and irreversible), I couldn’t believe Packham could advocate such things?!

Until I read his admission that his wife runs a zoo.

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Within his own blurb, on the same list that places him as the 2nd greatest conservation hero at present, Chris is quoted as saying “The worst are those putting the ‘con’ in conservation; organisations that care more about blindfolding their members than making a real difference.”

imageWould that not be zoos then, Chris?

I’ve written before about the way that zoos and safari parks are unquestionably entangled with education, and how, perhaps, it’s about time that relationship is subjected to a little questioning after all; and so, I felt that rather than repeat myself, I should shed a little light on where we could be focussing our conservation efforts instead.

Did you know that there is not one sustainable shark fishery on the planet? Why does education not teach us that? I never learned it from a zoo either.

shark fisheryOr that we’ve lost over half Africa’s lions in last 30 years. If we carry on at this rate, the African lion will be wiped out in 35 years.

So what can we do to enhance children’s education that’s not just a trip to the zoo to understand the relative scale of an adult male lion, regardless of environment and lack of opportunity to exercise natural behaviours?

imageTeach the message of Racing Extinction for a start. The documentary is already making its way into classrooms up and down the country, alongside various classroom resources and teachers’ aids, and in my (independent) opinion, that’s progress.

imageSecondly, we could improve schoolchildren’s knowledge of the work that’s being done to counteract some of the problems being faced in the natural world.

Will Travers joined a host of special guests at the London premiere of Racing Extinction last month, and discussed his own involvement in these areas…

This is exactly the kind of thing we could do with starting a conversation on.

Will Travers is the President of Born Free Foundation, which he founded with his mother, actor Virginia McKenna and father Bill Travers 30 years ago, and so his involvement is hands on. But there is also the important fact that everyday people are tackling conservation issues in everyday ways.

IMG_0118Just before Christmas, I joined the final 2015 instalment of the ongoing demonstrations against Taiji Cove.

This time, over a hundred people gathered outside the Japanese Embassy for most of the day and evening of the 18th December, culminating in a Racing Extinction-style building projections, in what could be seen as a call to arms for the next protest.

imageI will be joining this movement on the 16th January, alongside others who feel they want to make a difference (come say hi if you find yourself there – it’s open to anyone!), because the big changes really can start with ‘the little people’.

imageContinuing to look ahead to January and beyond, I will be focusing my attention on studying the concept of “StableCon” (Conversation through Stabilisation), so please keep an eye out for further info on this – perhaps most excitingly, however, I have joined Born Free’s Activate team, so perhaps my writing will begin to have wider impact (one can only hope).

But before I depart to pastures new in 2016; let me leave you with this one thought – A wildlife hero of mine once told me that to make the biggest impact on the issues faced in conservation and the natural world, all we’d need to do is have a conversation. If we talked to three people, and they in turn talked to three people, and each of those three talked to three more people – we could reach the ears of the whole world with 103 conversation starters. Whatever I do in 2016, I hope to be one of those conversation starters… Who’s ready to be one of the other 102?!

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Racing Extinction preview screening: #Startwith1thing

Stepping under the blue lights of the entrance, a rising excitement that just a corridor away would be the preview of Racing Extinction; Discovery Network’s biggest global event.

This was a special one for me, having worked on the school resources that supplement the event as part of my role as a sub editor at Discovery Education — plus, it would bring together two of my biggest passions: my job and my campaign work for Born Free Foundation.

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Born Free Foundation were one of the partners of the film, along with familiar faces such as Tusk Trust and Save Me.

Coincidently, one of the first people I bumped into at the top of a staircase adjorned with beautiful photographs of endangered species (complemented by their population facts and figures for us all to reflect upon); was Born Free’s Policy Advisor (and head of the Badger Trust) Dom Dyer: a face I have come to be familiar with thanks to demonstrations against Taji Cove, fox hunting, canned lion hunting, and most recently; the Lion Aid event in memory of Cecil the lion.

A deep breath and on through the double doors to the main buzz of the evening; a room of invited guests, Discovery employees and various animal activists, charities and campaigners. There amongst the crowd stood my dear friend Will Travers (below), whose presence made arriving at such a prestigious event alone slightly less daunting. I’ve said it before, but the close-nit camaraderie among Born Free’s founders, patrons and supporters really is second to none.image

With little time to spare (my ill-prepared decision to walk to the venue from Baker Street Station — a near-on half an hour walk as it turn out — had seen to that); it was on to the main event. The screening of this highly-anticipated, four-years-in-the-making docufilm by director Louie Psihoyos whose work includes the infamous, Academy Award Winning documentary The Cove, which I’ve previously written about here.

I hadn’t realised before arrival, that journalist and Born Free supporter Kate Silverton would be hosting the event, which immediately took me back to last year’s Wild Night at the Movies: hosted by a then very pregnant Kate Silverton: this was the event that my subsequent blog post about had earned me an invitation to meet Will Travers for the first time — a serendipitous detail to this evening indeed!image

I don’t know how to possibly put into words the power of the film that Louie Psihoyos has created. It’s a must watch… a must act upon… call to arms kind of film.

I almost feel like we have a duty as part of the human race — or more accurately still, as part of planet Earth — to hear the message that this movie speaks.

With a bigger budget and a cable network’s backing behind him, former National Geographic journalist Psihoyos has taken all the dramatic journalistic investigating; emotional narrative and strong, intelligent ethos of The Cove and mixed in some brilliant visionary talent (in the form of well-documented Empire State Building illuminator and Obscura Digital Founder,Travis Threlkel, and eco-warrior Race Car Driver Leilani Münter) to create something pretty spectacular.

For those interested in joining in the Global Premiere of the film, save the date: 2nd December, where Discovery Channel will be screening the documentary across the globe in a special worldwide event!

After watching the film (which received a standing ovation from its audience), the night concluded with a special panel discussion with a panel that included director Louie Psihoyos himself, and Born Free Patron Dr Brian May.

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The resounding sentiments from this segment of the evening were Psihoyos’ promotion of the statement: It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness; taken directly from the film, and Brian May’s admission that Racing Extinction had done more than ignite a candle: it had flipped a switch within him.

“The message of hope is what’s important here” May concluded — and I couldn’t have agreed with him more.

“We have to change us before we can change the policy makers,” Psihoyos closed with, and I think that’s where Discovery’s initative #Startwith1thing really comes in.image

All present fundraising champions and ‘wildlife royalty’ made their #Startwith1thing pledge during the course of the evening, including former Springwatch favourite Bill Oddie (who I had the pleasure of meeting at an Angels for the Innocent fundraiser earlier in the year) — and I’ve already made mine (see below).

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What will yours be? If we all start with 1 thing, we could be the candles that light up the darkness!

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Diving a little deeper…

I’ve been quiet lately, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy – and that my mind isn’t overflowing with ideas, causes I’ve heard about, campaigns I’ve read about and challenges I’d like to take on.

Not that I haven’t taken on challenges lately.

Since my last post, I’ve been lucky enough (and hardworking enough, let it be said) to find myself working back at Discovery Education – a company I worked for on a temporary contract last year – on a permanent basis. I couldn’t be happier.

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Having the opportunity to work on educational resources that will not only educate the next generation, but also interest and inspire, is an incredibly exciting responsibility. Albeit a somewhat daunting one at the present time.

It was during my research for engaging and curriculum-relevant news content that I came across the following article about cage diving with sharks.

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Image courtesy of Amanda Brewer, via National Geographic.

As someone who has been diving with great white sharks at the same location that’s mentioned and photographed in the article (Mossell Bay, South Africa), I was surprised to learn of the harm this could cause the animals. I admit that, again, I was ignorant (though if it helps, I’m beginning to understand the gravity of the harm that most wildlife-based visitors attractions cause to the animals in question).

My own experience of caged diving, speaking truthfully, was not one that I would care to repeat anyhow.

I can’t remember the name of the company I dived with, but I can remember the experienced vividly.

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After a long, cold few hours of trying to bait a shark (I was visiting the country during their winter time), rocking forwards and backwards in the salt-laced air (I suffer seasickness quite badly, so was tempering the taste of salt on my lips with the hot taste of ginger on my tongue as I chewed my way through another ginger tablet I’d bought from a ‘herbal health’-type chemist), we finally had a sighting.

Having booked the experience alone (I tend to travel alone often, as my interests are considered somewhat ‘niche’), I was able to join a couple who had excitedly requested to be the first of the group of 12 to enter the water. The cage held three ‘divers’ at a time. I use the term ‘divers’ loosely, as all we did was tread water whilst wearing goggles and a snorkel, submerging ourselves under water for just a few moments at a time each time a shark neared.

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Once we had descended into the cold water, suited and flippered appropriately, the shark which had taken hours to appear, had suddenly disappeared once more. Leaving us exhaustingly treading water against the rhythmic yet strong lifting and dropping of the current while the trip organisers tried to entice the creature back.

As all kinds of grisly fish blood and guts began to fill the water around us – one bucket full even thrown out over our heads, showering us with rotten marine carcasses, I heard another diver, still aboard the boat yell: “There! There’s two over there!”.

Suddenly the game had changed. We’d gone from no sharks to six! Six giant great whites, two estimated to be 9 foot or more were circling us. And I hated it.

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I’d paid enough for a day trip, which equated to three sessions in the cage on rotation with the other three groups of three. Needless to say, I gave my other two turns up.

In the dark, blood riddled water, exhausted from fighting the motion of the sea during all that time bobbing just above the surface, I had barely any energy by the time the six beautiful animals had arrived. The salt air, sea sickness and mountains of ginger I’d consumed in an effort to stop myself feeling ill were all suddenly counting against me – I was weak, and to top it off, I was freezing.

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Perhaps it was the respect I had for the majestic and awesome creatures, or the understanding of their power, but I seemed to be the only person that feared the sharks. Each time their giant set of jaws approached, with up to four rows of teeth barely concealed inside, I inhaled sharply.

As an 18 year old, I didn’t quite fill out my frame in the same way I do as an adult, off the back of two very sickly years involving crippling headaches, brain scans, countless blood tests and all kinds of hospital appointments, my legs were a little scrawnier then, and as time went by in that cage and treading the water took its toll, I felt my body had moved forward to the front of the metal enclosure and suddenly my legs were slipping between the bars – totally exposed to the sea ahead. I tried to edge myself backwards, eventually having to hold onto the bars as a stagnant force to push my weight backwards from in the moving water.

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As I summoned my upper body strength to push myself back to the centre of the cage, I felt the warm body of a 5 foot something shark through my wetsuit, brush against my knee cap.

Clambering out of the cage and back onto the deck of the boat, I turned round in time to snap this image of the 9 footer, lunging at the cage as the second lot of ‘divers’ excitedly descended down into the water for their turn. I decided then that his practice probably shouldn’t be happening.

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All images my own, unless otherwise stated.