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Autumn Leaf Safari Ecology Data Collection Activity

energize education through open sourceOne of the two people who reviewed my book on Amazon stated that he was disappointed as he expected a collection of lesson plans with open source technology integrated into them.  My line of thought was that I’d put enough effort into researching, organizing and presenting the book’s contents that I really didn’t want to construct lesson plans to go with the software.  Here, I attempt to amend this.  This activity incorporates science (ecology), mathematics and physical fitness.  As this involves going outside, choose a week when the weather looks most cooperative.

This would work best with students in primary grades, but could be modified for intermediate-level students with ease.  The best time for this is at the height of the fall season, when plenty of leaves litter the ground.  Each student will need a plastic grocery bag or food storage bag.  Each student will also need a Leaf Sorting Sheet (see below) and access to an electronic spreadsheet.  In keeping with the open source theme of this blog, I chose Libenergize education,libreofficereOffice Calc, but any such application will do.  At the end of this article there are links to download the Leaf Sorting Sheet, in ODT format, and the Leaf Tally Sheet spreadsheet, which is in ODS format and can be used as a template to design your own.  Note that the species of trees listed on these two items are indigenous to the northeastern United States, so please feel free to adapt them to match species found in your vicinity.

Introduce the activity by asking if anyone knows what a safari is.   Tell your students that we’ll be going out to the playground on a leaf safari and, in so doing, will learn a little about local ecology.  They are to collect as many leaves as they can, but they should try to select a variety of leaves.  When we’re finished, we’ll take a look at what we’ve got and make spreadsheets and graphs showing our findings.

Head out to the playground, preferably between recesses, so your students will have fewer distractions.  Give them 20 minutes to complete this task.  They can work with a partner, if desired.  At the prearranged time, call them back and head back to the classroom.  Each student/group will need a Leaf Sorting Sheet.  Give the students 10 minutes to sort their leaves and be prepared to answer any questions that may arise regarding leaf types and sorting practices.

energize education thorugh open source,libreoffice calc
The author’s completed spreadsheet.

When the sorting is finished, you can have your students open the spreadsheet that you have previously created.  I’d suggest using mine as a template and make any changes needed to it.  Anyway, each student, or group of two students, should have his or her own spreadsheet into which they will enter the quantity of each collected leaf type.  When done, guide the students, if necessary, preferably using a projector connected to your computer, through the chart creation process.  This will provide them with a graphical representation of their leaf collections.  These graphs can be printed and put on display in the classroom.  For closure, ask students what they may have learned while doing this activity.  Were some species of leaves more prevalent?  What does this tell you about the kinds of trees that grow in this area?  Now that you now how to put data into a spreadsheet and to create graphs, in what other tasks could you use these tools?

I hope you’ll find this activity useful and that you and your students both enjoy and learn from it.  I welcome any comments or ideas.


Leaf Sorting Sheet

Leaf Tally Sheet

LibreOffice Web Site

ExpEYES… Your Lab@Home

expeyes,energize education ExpEYES is a low-cost open source framework of computer hardware and software that provides a means to perform low-cost science experiments using computers.  ExpEYES offers formats designed for students from high school on.  Let’s take a look at what can be done with ExpEYES.

expeyes,energize educationAccording to its Web site, ExpEYES is a tool for learning science through exploration and experimentation, It includes integrated an oscilloscope and a signal generator and is powered via USB.  ExpEYES offers 12-bit analog resolution, accurate measurements and is physically compact, for easy relocation.  The software for ExpEYES is written in Python, an open source programming language.  The online manual presents 50 (yes, fifty!) experiments that users can duplicate and, perhaps tha coolest feature of all, others can be easily created and added to the list.

expeyes,energize education
Make your own AC generator with ExpEYES.


So, from where does this marvel of scientific exploration come?  ExpEYES was developed by the PHOENIX project of Inter-University Accelerator Centre (IUAC) of New Delhi.  The long-term goal of this project is to make the equipment and methods used in research available to the student community.  In science, experiments are performed, data is collected and analyzed.  Conclusions drawn.  The difference offered by ExpEYEs is the fact that the equipment is affordable.

Measuring water conductivity

So, what kind of experiments can a burgeoning scientist perform with ExpEYES?  According to the ExpEYES User’s Manual, users can conduct experiments involving electricity, magnetism, electronics, sound, mechanics, optics, heat and computer programming.  In terms of electricity, young scientists can perform experiments involving, among many other topics, voltage measurement, water conductivity and AC circuit study.  Regarding electricity and magnetism, possible experiments include creating a simple AC generator and making an electromagnet.  Some of the other experiments include amplitude and frequency modulation (electronics), sound velocity, using a stroboscope and hardware communication.

expeyes,energize education,open source experiments
What experiments could your students conduct with ExpEYES?


As potentially enriching as ExpEYES sounds, it is just one of several open source technology products created as part of the PHOENIX Project.  If you’re interested in learning more about this and other opportunities to cultivate the scientists and engineers in your school, you should check out the ExpEYES Web site.  Your students will thank you through their creations, if not through their words.

Thanks to Ajith Kumar for his support, the contributions that he provided and for suggested modifications.

ExpEYES is available for Linux and Microsoft Windows.  It is available in Canada and the UK.


ExpEYES Web site

The PHOENIX Project


ExpEYES junior user’s manual: experiments for young engineers and scientists.  n.d.). New Delhi: Inter-University Accelerator Centre. GNU General Public License.  Retrieved from http://www.iuac.res.in/~elab/expeyes/Documents/eyesj-a4.pdf.

Stellarium -open source planetarium

I came across this little gem while perusing the Ubuntu Software Center and decided to give it a shot.  Stellarium is an open source, free planetarium that runs right on your computer.  To be honest, I was really taken aback by Stellarium’s stunning appearance and visual quality.  For one thing, it doesn’t run in a window.  It launches into full-screen mode, which beautifully presents the eye-catching graphics.  I can discuss this further at another point.

stellarium,energize education thrugh opne source,energize education
Stellarium’s default appearance

As previously mentioned, Stellarium opens in full screen mode by default.  The user finds him or herself looking up at the night sky in the northern hemisphere.  Only the major heavenly bodies and cardinal compass points  are labeled.  The interface is very straightforward.  At the bottom of the screen, a panel provides information such as location (Paris, France by default), elevation, Field of View (FOV), Frames Per Second (FPS), date and time.  Clicking on a heavenly body brings up information about that body, such as its name, position and distance from Earth.  Configuration is handled through two docks/panels called toolbars in the lower left corner.  The bottom toolbar, or main toolbar, allows the user to turn visual effects on and off.  The side toolbar opens dialog boxes used to configure Stellarium.

stellarium,energize education,christopher whittum,whitshade
Stellarium displaying Constellation Art.

So, what does Stellarium have to offer in terms of features?  According to the Stellarium Web site, Stellarium includes a default catalog of over 600,000 stars (though additional catalogs containing up to 210 million are available)  There are optional connecting lines and/or illustrations (referred to as Constellation Art) that can be toggled to better visualize constellations.  Stellarium offers constellations for over 20 cultures and the stories behind those constellations.  Views of every planet, and their satellites, are provided.  Other features include powerful zoom, multilingual support, time controls, excellent graphics and integrated help.

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Stellarium’s toolbars

Arguably, one of Stellarium’s greatest strengths is the level of customization that it offers.  First of all, as I mentioned, Paris, France is the default location.  Paris is, however, one of hundreds of locations around the world from which users may choose for their session.  Additionally, if you’re bored with Earth, you can view the stars from such heavenly bodies as Mars, Saturn or the Moon.  One feature that the author thought was pretty cool was being able to toggle the visibility of the ground.  Remove the ground and you can view the whole night sky, northern and southern hemispheres, just as if you were in outer space.  Other features that can be controlled include equatorial and azumuthal lines, the flow and direction of time and visibility of nebulae.  Combine these with the many other features available and you have an incredible platform upon which your students can explore the universe.

Stellarium is available for Linux, Apple MacOS and Microsoft Windows.


Stellarium Home Page

Stellarium User’s Guide


Category: User’s guide.  (2014).  Retrieved from the Stellarium Wiki: http://www.stellarium.org/wiki/index.php/Category:User’s_Guide


QGIS -An Open Source Geographic Information System

energize education, qgis
The QGIS logo

Today I want to take a look at QGIS, a free, open source Geographic Information System. So, what is a geographic information system? The U.S. Government Accountability Office (February 2015) defines a geographic information system as “a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface. GIS can show many different kinds of data on one map, such as streets, buildings, and vegetation. This enables people to more easily see, analyze, and understand patterns and relationships.” Imagine the kinds of classroom activities that you could develop for Science and Social Studies classes with this kind of software. It’s comparable to ESRI, but without the rather hefty expense that often comes with proprietary technology.

QGIS is actually comprised of several components. The first is the QGIS Desktop. This component allows users to create, view, analyze and share geospatial information. The QGIS Browser allows users to review and organize their data. QGIS Server allows users to share data and to choose which aspects of the data are viewable by others. The QGIS Web Client makes publishing maps online a breeze. They can also be enhanced with symbols and labels. The final component, QGIS on Android, is at the beta level of development, but experienced users are welcome to try it out.

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A QGIS session

So what can you do with QGIS? You can create, edit, manage and export data using a variety of tools such as OpenStreetMap integration. There are digitizing tools that support OCR and GPS. Spatial data can be analyzed in terms of vectors, geoprocessing and geometry, among other criteria. QGIS also integrates 400 tools from GRASS GIS. Additionally, QGIS can share your work online as a WCS (World Coverage Service), a WMS (Web Map Service) or as a WFS (World Feature Service). In short, virtually anything that a user would want to do with a map, he or she can do with QGIS. Imagine the projects students could complete.

QGIS owes much of its functionality and versatility to the wide variety of plugins that are available. The core plugins installed by default include, but are by no means limited to, GPS Tools, Raster Terrain Analysis, interpolation and a Road Graph plugin. Furthermore, a real strength of this software, especially in terms of expandability, is the integration of the Python programming language. Python has been used to develop many of the external pulugins available through the QGIS community. As part of this integration, QGIS offers a Python console through the use of which new plugins can be developed. How’s that for growth potential?

qgis,energize education,energize education through open source
QGIS displays information about the habitat of the Asian Lynx.

Python and QGIS combine with OpenLayers, an open source mapping library, and APIs (Application Program Interface) to create some incredible maps. Maps can be generated that, with a click, can move from one location to another. Maps can be developed that zoom in and out as needed with a mouse click. Users can even toggle between different types of maps for the same regions. For example, QGIS was used recently by undergraduate students to analyze the habitat of the Asian Lynx in the Carpathian mountains. you can view some of their findings in the screenshot at left.

energize education through open source,qgis
QGIS running on Linux in GNOME

You’re thinking, ‘This is great! But how long does it take to learn to use QGIS or become proficient in it enough to teach my students?” The good news is that there is a large amount of documentation available to help new users install and learn to run QGIS. Most of the literature is available on the QGIS Web site and I have provided links directly to some of them below. Regarding the Python programming language, it is fairly easy to learn to use and there are plenty of free tutorials available online. As to using this application with students, you could argue that, because of Python integration, QGIS will grow with your learners.

QGIS is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows and MacOS X.

Thanks to Charles Cossé for suggesting this topic. All images have come from the QGIS home page.


QGIS Web Site

A Gentle Introduction to GIS


Dichte, A., Ehrminger, L., Garcia Travesi Reyes, S., Hoppe, T. and Winger, D. Gnilke, A., Hiltunen & Mund, J.P. (August 2015). Lynx habitat analysis in the Southern Carpathians. Creative Commons. Retrieved from http://www.qgis.org/en/site/about/case_studies/europe_lynx.html.

QGIS user guide. Release 2.8. (14 November 2015). The QGIS Development Team. GNU Venereal Public License. Retrieved from http://docs.qgis.org/2.8/pdf/en/QGIS-2.8-UserGuide-en.pdf.

U.S Government Accountability Office. (February 2015). Progress Needed on Identifying Expenditures, Building and Utilizing a Data Infrastructure, and Reducing Duplicative Efforts (Publication No. GAO-15-193). Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668494.pdf.