Monday, February 29, 2016

Homeschooling a #HERper, or Perils of a Python mom!

I've written bits and pieces of this on various message boards for years, and since the #HERpers hashtag has brought up a few people who are interested in resources for their young, herp-interested girls, I felt it was time to put it in one place.

Disclaimer-the only things I know about herpetology and resources are what I've learned from experience. Obviously, your mileage may very, but here's what I've found so far

1) Local resources

For us, the herp journey started at the pet store. Specifically, going to the "mini-zoo" with a toddler who wanted to see 'akes! Lots and lots of snakes. The local zoo was helpful as well.

Kids books on reptiles and amphibians can be hit and miss. A lot seems to assume that kids are going to be scared and start from that viewpoint of making them less scary-but also, at the same time sensationalize them. By about age 5, my daughter preferred books written for adult hobbyists about specific species and their behavior, and there are a lot of them. Many have beautiful pictures, too.

Petco has reptile events several times a year, like "Reptile Rally", where they run sales and also, in many stores, encourage local herp groups and rescue groups to bring in their animals as well. These are wonderful for a herp interested young kid. One local store in my area does a monthly reptile night during summer months for herp owners to bring out their pets, and my daughter went from being an interested kid who wanted to pet and hold animals to being one of the pet owners who comes to teach others over the years. An added bonus of such events is that they're free.

Local reptile shows, like Repticon. These can be hit and miss, as well. The focus of such shows is selling animals, and as a result, many of the vendors don't want to take time to talk to an interested child, don't want them to hold/touch the animals, and so on. There are some exceptions. The Reptile Collective folks are very friendly and responsive to kids at the shows they attend. If you attend the talks, often those folks are more willing to chat 1-1 (and at our local Repticon, many of the talks will almost be 1-1, because they're so badly attended). And if local advocacy or rescue groups are there (many shows give non-profits space for free if they have room), they're often quite friendly and have animals there to be ambassadors.

Zoos-if you have a good one, attend keeper talks, and join the zoo so you get the member's information. Many have excellent summer camps, spring break camps, and so on.  The same is true with other nature centers, botanic gardens, and other stuff. Even if they're not snake focused, often these are good fits for kids who love snakes.

Local herp forums and groups. In Tennessee, we have CHET-Coalition of Herp Enthusiasts of TN, plus several local facebook pages.  These groups are great to connect to and provide a lot of support for herp-interested kids.

Local events and festivals-Audubon centers, zoos, and similar organizations have these, and many have a reptile component, if not the entire event. One very notable one is the
 Texas Rattlesnake Festival 
Held yearly to show that there are viable alternatives to the rattlesnake roundups, this event has a special track just for kids and a lot of great information on snakes.

Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival.  Like the Texas Rattlesnake festival, this is a no-kill event celebrating wildlife. Do check websites carefully when looking at festivals, because there are a few of the very cruel roundups that celebrate killing snakes out there. 

2) Travel

Almost all our travel has a reptile/amphibian component, and did even before  we started going to conferences. State and national parks are wonderful, and again, attend the ranger talks, and plan your schedule around them. Ask which trails are less traveled, because those are the ones where you're likely to see animals. Visit museums, zoos, and nature centers. Junior ranger programs are awesome!

A few awesome places that I want to highlight:

Great Smokies National Park. One of their ongoing projects is tracking salamanders in streams, and they have ranger classes where they teach kids collection skills and how to use a dichotomous key to identify some of the more common salamanders. Highly recommended. We saw a lot of salamanders just on trail walks in the Great Smokies, plus a few frogs, many skinks, and water snakes.

Everglades National Park and the other parks in the Everglades system-Can you say alligators? Lots and lots of alligators? And lizards, and skinks, and frogs. We didn't see any snakes on the established trails, but they're there too. Bring bug spray, unless you enjoy feeding mosquitoes (which do feed frogs). The Junior ranger program and ranger stations are wonderful, too.

Gatorland-Yes, it's a tourist trap, but it also has a lot of alligators and other reptiles, and a very, very nice natural swamp for many of their gators to live in. Go to the shows.

Kentucky Reptile Zoo-This is a program in Slade KY that focuses on producing snake venom for biomedical research and antivenin. They have multiple small buildings, each focused on a specific area of the world and the snakes that live there, and are more than willing to answer questions for kids-and are some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. KRZ has an adopt a snake program, where a child can pick a snake to adopt, get a photo of their snake, and have their name placed on the snake's vivarium for the next year. This is one of the few adopt-an-animal programs where you can actually visit your animal, and it's not just symbolic.

Sea World-Yes, Sea World. For two reasons. The first is that, especially in the behind the scenes tours, you can learn a lot about animal rehabilitation and conservation efforts. Its not necessarily reptile-specific, but it is extremely interesting, and is a great experience. The second is because Sea World has very animal friendly groundskeeping, and you'll see a lot of local herps. If possible, stay at one of their partner hotels and walk to the parks. It's not far, and we saw dozens of anoles, frogs, toads, and even a few snakes just in a fairly short walk to the parks.  (Sea World Orlando, but my guess is that the others are awesome,too!)

3) Internet

This is something that is going to be up to the individual family as to how to manage. The way we have worked it is that generally I create and own an account, and read quite a bit and for awhile. I then e-mail the moderators and ask if it is acceptable to have DD share, with the understanding that I know that it is an adult venue and that it may not be always child appropriate, and allow her to start reading.  We have learned a lot together via herp forums, both ones for specific animals and their keeping/breeding programs. Be aware that these are adult groups, and they're not going to limit what they say for your child-and shouldn't. So, keep in mind that you may have to explain to a 7 yr old why a female participant wants a boyfriend who is "het for boa, not garter".  There are also a lot of great sites to learn about various animals, but like everything on the internet, quality varies, so be careful.

4) Non-Profits. These go along with internet sites, and many do some really, really awesome stuff, have online webinars, and have great information. Again, be aware that bias exists and that the sites aren't going to usually be designed for kids, and some organizations are better at letting kids participate and be involved, and at taking them seriously than others.

A few favorites we've found that do a great job of taking kids seriously are

Save the Frogs!- Save the frogs! takes the prize for being the most kid friendly and responsive out there, and my daughter isn't the only kid who has been launched into advocacy largely due to their encouragement. DD's first advocacy event was doing a Save the Frogs Day event for our homeschool group, and they work closely with schools and kid groups and are just awesome. Their webinars are great, and they are welcoming of kids who want to sit in.

FrogWatch USA. Citizen Science program that trains you to identify Frog calls and report in where you hear them and their frequency. Online and live workshops. Some zoos have even done ones specifically for 'tween girls. PBS Kids SCIgirls has partnered with Frogwatch to make materials and activities available for kids.

Advocates for Snake Preservation There are a lot of great snake conservation groups out there, but ASP, which is a small group focused primarily on rattlesnakes and on researching social behavior of rattlesnakes, is very kid friendly. They are enthusiastic about supporting young kids, treat small donations by kids with the same enthusiasm large donations are treated, and, because they focus on social behavior research, have a lot of wonderful video content on their page and available to members which is just plain fun and very accessible.

PARC Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. PARC does regional and national events and meetings to allow discussion, research presentations, and education on conservation of these species. Be aware that sometimes conservation can be a little depressing for a kid who loves amphibians and reptiles so much. There is nothing quite like hearing that your favorite animal is at risk of extinction. At the same time, though, PARC is very active in citizen science and loves encouraging young researchers, so it's worth it to bookmark their pages.

Ducks Unlimited -Not reptile specific, but Ducks Unlimited focuses heavily on wetlands conservation, and their Greenwings program has both publications and local events for kids. The Puddlers magazine is nice for younger kids, too.

4) Journals and publications

For younger kids

Cricket Media has amazing magazines for a range of ages, and the science ones often contain really good animal content, along with other topics

Ranger Rick is the National Wildlife Foundation's magazine for younger kids. It has a lot of nice content.

Kids Discover-No longer published as a separate magazine, but back issues are available and are well done.

Natural Inquirer-A gold star and triple diamonds for this! Natural Inquirer is a kids' science journal, written for middle schoolers, from the US Forestry department, which takes and synthesizes research. They also have the InvestiGATOR journal for younger kids, picture books and scientist cards focusing on researchers who work for the Forestry service, including a set focusing on women scientists, including HERpers, and just a bunch of really, really amazing stuff. And best of all, it's free!

For high school level and up-Journals and professional associations

There are many really good journals in herpetology and in science research. These are written and designed for professionals, so they're not easy reading, and I wouldn't suggest handing them to a student who is not at least on a solid high school reading level, but when they get there, check them out!

Herpetological Conservation and Biology 

This is an open access, peer reviewed journal focusing on conservation research in herpetology. Published quarterly

PLOS- Another collection of open access, peer reviewed journals. Searchable and a great place to do research

5) Societies and conferences
 State herpetological societies. Our local one is the
 Tennessee Herpetological Society 
 State societies often have conferences where undergraduate and graduate students, as well as researchers, present their results for the year. These are a very intense way to hear what is happening. It is sitting and listening, so I would not recommend these until your child is happily reading journal articles and thinks hearing a 15 minute talk summarizing several years of research is fun, and wants to do it all day, because these are not kid-focused events. Such conferences are an excellent way to find out what research is being done at the college level, which colleges have programs of interest, meet faculty and connect with potential mentors, and decide what topics are of high interest.

Some herp society meetings will also include field trips, which are a great experience. 

There are three main herpetological groups in the United states, and all have excellent journals and participate in a large, joint conference most years. These are

Society for the study of Amphibians and Reptiles

American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologists

and the

Herpetologists league

Together with the American Elasmobranch Society, they put on the Joint Meeting of Icthyologists and Herpetologists

This is a very large conference where students and professionals share their research. It is definitely an adult event, and is a big social event for those attending, and many events will have alcohol. SSAR has a mentoring program and welcomes participation by pre-bacclaureate students who are ready to engage with the content at a college level. It is an intense conference, and a wonderful experience for a student interested in herpetology. And a learning experience for the parent involved.  Here is my blog post on attending the JMIH in Chattanooga with my young #HERper.

Attending a national conference is a big step. It is expensive, because you're paying not only registration fees but hotel and transportation. It's a lot of content in a very short period of time, and it is, as I said, an adult event. It's tiring even for me, as the parent, to keep up with the changing topics every 15 minutes. But my daughter is in her element and loves being there, and we have met wonderful people there and made excellent connections.

As mentioned under non-profits, PARC also does regional conferences and meetings.

6) Projects

Probably the best part about homeschooling is being able to follow your child and letting them do projects. Here are my daughter's

Alli's Snakes -This is my daughter's science blog. She reads journals, reports on her own research and science (and the occasional school project) and basically does her non-fiction/technical writing here.

My Little Python- If you are reading this, you probably already found My Little Python. This is my daughter's project to support reptile and amphibian advocacy, especially snakes, and especially, to teach girls that snakes and other animals that are considered "Scary", really aren't. She draws a webcomic that shows snakes living normal, kid lives that also integrates facts about snakes, and chooses content to share on Facebook and Twitter. I own, monitor, and moderate these pages for her projects (and if you directly message or talk to someone on such pages, it is usually me), but they are the outlets for her to share her message and reach those around her. Through My Little Python, she participates in and fundraises for herp groups and non-profits, illustrated and assisted in creating a book for kids about snakes with Irwin Q. Wart and has started a local group of kids focused on animal education and advocacy called Team My Little Python.

If you build it, they will come. 
This is a research project focused on a simple idea-that it is possible to create temporary, low cost frog ponds and attract local frogs, so homeschoolers can observe metamorphosis and life cycle without having to move frogs from their native habitats. This past fall, DD presented her preliminary research at the Tennessee Herpetological conference. This Spring, homeschoolers around the United states, and a few outside the US, are joining us in creating replicate ponds and seeing what results they get. If you wish to be involved in this project, and are on facebook, please join us here. (And no, you don't have to be homeschooled to participate).

Supporting and following research projects. Social media and crowdsourcing is becoming more common in science, and one really wonderful way of learning is to pick a specific project and follow it. Again, as mentioned with organizations, graduate students are often very friendly and enthusiastic towards their young supporters, making this a way that kids can be involved in something bigger than themselves.

Instrumentl- Instrumentl is a crowd funding platform that encourages challenges of a specific type. Searchable and accessible. They had an amphibians challenge this past fall.

Rockethub-Rocket hub is another funding platform that has some awesome herp projects. (hint #PulloverforSirens is a project currently up by an awesome #HERper!)

7) Mentors. Believe me, I haven't done this myself. DD has had an army of awesome people-college professors, graduate students, hobbyists, and professionals who have helped and supported her so far, and I don't think that will change. Many thanks to all of you-and all those in years to come!

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