EAST TAMPA — Lockhart Elementary Magnet School fifth-graders gathered in front of a LCD projector screen on a recent Friday morning for a "live from the field" Web conference with school science resource teacher Jane Kemp.
She appeared on the screen and spoke of her expedition from inside a bunkhouse in Cherry Hill, Nova Scotia.
Outside the bunkhouse, yellow, orange and red leaves bespeak autumn in a little Atlantic coast town famous for its lobsters.
Kemp, 52, was awarded a fellowship through Earthwatch Institute to travel to Canada and gather data on native mammal populations to determine the impact of climate change.
Earthwatch Institute is a nonprofit organization that recruits environmental volunteers and places them in scientific field research projects around the world.
"The purpose of the expedition was to count mammals, specifically small mammals, to see if the bottom of the food chain is still healthy in that area," Kemp said. "Due to climate change, winters are coming later and later and some of the animals are being affected by that."
For instance, mammals may remain in the reproductive stage in late October because of unusually high temperatures. They may not forage before the hibernation cycle; thus, they may not survive the winter.
The snowshoe hare, whose fur turns white in winter and rusty brown in summer for camouflage, is now more exposed to predators because its fur turns white even if the first snowflake has not yet fallen.
Kemp worked with a team of 13 volunteers from the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom led by research associates with the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University in England.
The team used small traps to collect voles, mice and lemmings and record species, gender, age and weight at Cook's Lake, Nova Scotia, from Oct. 11 to 25.
They also looked for field signs such as animal droppings to determine if there was a stable population of larger mammals.
"I wouldn't say expert but I am much more informed about poop that I was before," she said.
After the two weeks, the team observed that although there was a healthy population of voles, the mice population had declined.
"It implies that something is having some sort of impact," said Kemp.
Back in Tampa, her students followed her every move through a blog and Web conferences.
"The students were very interested," said fifth-grade science and math teacher Nanci Loria, 40, who incorporated Kemp's expedition in her lessons.
She said students gained from the experience. They checked the blog daily and looked up animals they did not know.
"It was really a great experience for the kids to be able to see somebody that they know and work with everyday doing real science," said Kemp.
She will apply her experience in Nova Scotia at the school in East Tampa.
She will soon start a project with her students to collect field signs to calculate the population of small animals, such as squirrels, rats and raccoons within the neighborhood. She will install a camera trap that detects motion to record nocturnal animals and will look for animal droppings as she did during her expedition.
She said students seem to be particularly excited about the latter.