Can a desert help us teach?

The Ecology and History of the Sonoran Desert

Principal investigator:
Award amount:
$4,800
Originating sponsor:
Arizona Game and Fish Department
Grant start date:
May 21, 2015
Grant end date:
May 20, 2018

The challenge:

Many people do not know what defines a desert, what is unique about the Sonoran Desert or what this desert may have in common with others. The Sonoran Desert was not included in the Encyclopedia of Life, a free, online collaborative encyclopedia documenting the 1.9 million living species known to science.

Conservation of desert land and species depends upon education. This grant is leading to development of a field guide to be used by K-12 teachers as a teaching tool and curriculum resource, and by students of all ages as they seek information for school projects regarding deserts. The field guide will define a desert and explain how various deserts are similar and different. The tool will be used by pre-service students in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, by students enrolled in Educational Studies to complete coursework and gain teaching resources and by others who seek information about deserts from the EOL.  

The approach:

The project team created a field guide of cards introducing plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert.  Each card contains a picture, a list of desert characteristics and a habitat description. The field guide includes representations of food chains and food webs. Fact sheets also explain citizen science and how to get involved in it. Citizen science is the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists. Examples include bird counts and rock collecting, or animal counting and observations. 

Findings and impact:

The Sonoran Desert was not addressed in the Encyclopedia of Life previously, but now facts about this desert are available for educators, scientists, students and others. The project had an impact on MLFTC students as a 10-student development team learned how to compose and design field guide cards, researched important data to be used by a diverse audience of professionals and laypeople and collaborated with scientists to complete these tasks. The team worked nationally and internationally with scientists to develop the guide. The funds were used to build 11 Sonoran Desert discovery boxes that each of the development team members can use in their future classrooms and share with other educators. To date, 106 students have completed the Sonoran Desert course. The class is offered every semester between ASU’s Tempe and Polytechnic campuses and fills quickly each term.