Think environmental science? Think purple
aureen Barrett '94, M'03 has created an exciting way for her 125 eighth graders at Mount Laurel's Thomas E. Harrington Middle School to get a hands-on science lesson.
In 2003, Barrett received a $2,000 grant from PSE&G and the New Jersey Business/Industry/Science Education Consortium through the Rewarding Excellence in Environmental Education program. She used the grant to set up 12 plastic gourds, hoping to attract purple martins to nest in them.
Barrett, a Mays Landing resident and Cape May Bird Observatory member, is enrolled in Rowan's Supervisor's Certification Program. But her interest in birds started with a Rowan ornithology course as part of her elementary education/biological science major.
"The goldfinch is our state bird and [Dr. Andrew Prieto] took us on a walk around the campus grounds and pointed the bird out to us," Barrett said. "Taking that course just opened my eyes to birding."
According to the Purple Martin Conservation Association's website, the birds spend the nonbreeding season in Brazil then migrate to North America to nest. East of the Rockies they are the only birds that depend entirely on human-supplied housing.
Barrett asked maintenance workers to set up a speaker system outside the school. Then she put on a CD ("Purple Martin Dawn Song"), cranked up the speakers and hoped to draw the birds' interest.
"We put the speaker system on a timer to come on from 4:30 a.m. until school started at 7:15 and then again from about 5 p.m. until dark," said Barrett.
Although no purple martins nested at Harrington in 2003, the project's first year, three birds were often seen flying nearby.
As they are known to do, the martins had scouted out the gourds and marked them for future use. The next spring, three martins nested. The female laid four eggs, three of which hatched. A year later, seven pairs of martins resided at Barrett's colony and this spring, approximately 24 martins called Harrington home.
In April or May, Barrett and her students host a "Purple Martin Festival," where her students teach visitors about the birds.
Then, each July, renowned purple martin expert Allen Jackson of Millville, helps Barrett-and students who volunteer-fit the young birds with a plastic leg band to help birders chart the martins' migration patterns.
"[The project] gives me an opportunity to teach life science in a hands-on way," said Barrett, who has written another grant proposal in hopes of acquiring a second 12-gourd set-up for the school. "I can work in conservation lessons and environmental science issues. I can really teach a lot of different concepts and hopefully the students will develop a greater appreciation of the environment"
Besides the purple martin project, Barrett has participated in teacher exchange programs in New Zealand and Costa Rica and Earthwatch expeditions in Ecuador, Costa Rica and Isle Royale, Mich.
She studied in Japan through a Fulbright Scholarship and spent three weeks on a University of Rhode Island project researching Pacific Ocean marine life. As of press time, she expected to join an Earthwatch Kenya expedition to study zebras (follow her "Teach Live" postings at her website.
—Mike Shute ’93