Alien Pods in Our Neighborhood, or The 100-Species Challenge

Geek Culture


Recently the kids and I have taken an idea I picked up from the Homeschooling Mom blogosphere and given it a GeekDad twist. Inspired by a quote she read somewhere about the decline of local knowledge among modern westerners, last spring Sarah Conrad Sours issued The 100-Species Challenge by asking: “Can you recognize a hundred plant species that are living within a mile of your home?” Since then, families have begun recording what they find in their corner of the world with photos, descriptions, and even poetry.

Since we are homeschooling Biology this year, I decided to expand The 100-Species Challenge to include every living thing we could find and photograph – plants, animals, and indeterminate micro-organisms included. Along the way we’ll be looking at their environment, their interaction, how they live and reproduce, the new ways of classifying life that have sprung up since I took Biology back in the Dark Ages, and anything else that seems interesting and explorable. Learning how to take useful and aesthetically pleasing in-the-field and microscopic photographs and videos has become part of the course. And the kids used their skills with Corel Draw to make a really impressive map to record where our findings were made.

100_4556100_4556We started in the backyard, covering the handful of deliberately-planted items that came with the house, my vegetable gardens and the numerous weeds and wildflowers that sprang up over the summer after I decided we should leave a few patches of “meadow” to grow unhindered. Adding a small plastic fish pond this year also netted us a family of frogs.

After a couple of weeks we moved on to the canal tow path near our house. Here we made our best discovery of all: gray, slimy alien pods, many the size of basketballs. They turned out to be colonies of prehistoric mini-creature known as Freshwater Bryozoa. Check out our post on them, including microscopic photos, at our new blog Home Biology.

We’ll probably hit our 100 Species goal this week, but they don’t really count until you’ve identified them all. So as the days grow colder we’ll be doing more indoor work, trying to match our written descriptions and photos with names. Although we own a copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests (billed as the equivalent of 10 separate field guides to birds, mammals, trees, flowers and the like; there’s also a First Guide to Forests for Kids) as well as gardening books up the wazoo, I’ve found using Google Image much easier. I’ve also started a list of useful nature identification websites at the Home Biology blog.100_4765100_4765

I’ve also got a sample of the chart I printed out for the kids to write in their findings; once we enter all the information we’ve gathered on the computer, we can turn it into a database that can be analyzed to see what grew and where.

I’m sure GeekDad readers can come up with other ways to build upon the 100-Species Challenge. Thanks to Sarah for coming up with the idea, and Melissa Wiley – author of books in the Little House series and wife of comic book writer Scott Peterson — for publicizing it and creating that great image!

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