Sun Prints, Smart Phones and Technologies New and Old: Alternative Avenues to Appreciating Nature Now

Western Tanager, September/October 2016

Robert Jeffers, LAUSD Educator and Los Angeles Audubon Board Member, and Stacey Vigallon, Director of Environmental Education

Summer 2016 will go down for many as another watershed moment in tech – the summer “augmented reality” apps came into their own, ushered into the mainstream by Pokemon Go. Many bemoan it as yet another example of how our culture has become increasingly tethered to the digital world and further disconnected from the natural world. But, can we as nature-lovers help people see that tiny screen as a window on the natural world, an entry point to stewardship and outdoor adventure?

In the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program, our overriding philosophy is that students should be truly present in nature, giving their full attention to the learning tasks at hand. In other words – put your phone away! However, this summer Los Angeles Audubon ran two workshops for Greenhouse Program students entitled “Art + Tech + Nature.” We wanted not only to broaden students’ understanding of what “technology” meant, but to also show students that smart phones can be powerful tools to understanding nature and communicating visually with others. For contemporary youth, digital connectedness is a fact of life. Schools increasingly do away with print and opt for digital, online textbooks and readings. Socially, Instagram, Snapchat and the like keep kids connected and become the filter through which they learn about many aspects of the world and about being human. If digital technology plays such a pivotal, unavoidable role in the development and growth of youth in our culture, even environmental educators need to find ways to make the digital context work to meet learning goals.

workshop drawing july2016Students use ancient technology (paper and pencil!) to record images and ideas.

workshop sunprint july2016Students created sun prints to explore an early photographic technology.

workshop UVbeads july2016Students created key chains using UV-sensitive beads.

For our “Art + Tech + Nature” workshops, we approached the idea of “technology” as any tool or methodology that humans developed to help accomplish a task. This allowed us to incorporate into our workshops a much, much broader sense of human history, put profoundly useful (but ancient) tools into a new perspective, and provide opportunities to include hands-on creation of artwork. Students first observed and drew the landscape and natural objects around them using paper and pencil – technologies that humans have been using to record images and ideas for a very long time. Next, students explored the cyanotype (“sun print”), a photographic process that has 170-year-old origins and let students to capture images outdoors and awaken their inner artist. Then, we created key chains with UV-sensitive beads, brainstorming ways that beads that indicate exposure to UV light could be useful in daily life.

workshop smartphone july2016The iNaturalist smart phone app in action, exploring an entry for the Western Scrub-jay.

The last part of our workshop finally addressed digital technology. Using smart phones we taught students how they could use free apps to learn more about the natural world and support stewardship in their daily lives. Merlin Bird ID helps users identify birds in their respective patches using a sequence of questions plus location-based information, and iNaturalist plugs users into a social network of naturalists and a collective database of nature observations. Other apps like Star Walk 2 allow users to explore the night sky in real-time, and myGardenAnswers helps with plant ID in real-time as well. We were also extremely fortunate to have Lorna Herf, a professional from the tech industry, as a guest speaker. She talked about some of the negative health impacts that screen time can have, and she demonstrated the types of light emitted from different phones using a spectrometer and a laptop computer. The discussion about digital technology and public health was a great opportunity for students to learn about career paths within both the tech and medical fields.

workshop students july2016Workshop participants hold up their sun prints and their smart phones.

Our hope for students is that they begin to view technology (especially smart phone technology) as just another tool for understanding the world. Technology may be the entry point for people to become engaged in the natural world, but we think it will be the real birds, insects and plants that help keep them there.