P1000213In April, Think Elephants, a Thailand-based organization that promotes conservation through education, published the results of a study that found that elephants could follow vocal commands telling them to find food hidden in one of two buckets. This suggests that elephants may navigate their physical world in ways that primates and dogs –  prior subjects of animal cognition studies – can not. You thought your family pooch was smarter than an elephant? Think again.

Perhaps more surprising is that the academic paper’s coauthors were middle school students living and studying at the East Side Middle School in Manhattan. They had formed a relationship with the conservation organization half a world away via Skype, providing an outlet for students to interact with both the elephants and the trained professionals studying them. From there, the students helped formulate and execute their own experiments, which led to the study. The academic paper was published in Plos One, a  peer-reviewed, open-access, online journal.

The closest that previous generations of students could have gotten to an elephant was by watching a documentary or visiting the zoo. But advances in telecommunications have changed all that and in the process influenced the way students can learn. According to Dr. Joshua Plotnik, Think Elephants founder and CEO, the camp in northern Thailand is wired for Internet through a wireless router. There’s a Macbook Pro on a wooden table, which is linked, via USB, to an external HD handicam. Using an external handicam means that he can zoom in and out, and bring the camera to the elephants. The group usually communicates over Skype (but have also used Google Hangouts) to link live directly with 12-to-14 year old students at East Side Middle School.

Dr. Plotnik arranges for three to four elephants in the camp to hang out with the students while the handlers (mahouts) feed them. The students can ask questions, see inside the elephants’ mouths, watch an impromptu veterinary check, etc. The publication of the paper paper capped off a “three-year endeavor to create a comprehensive middle school curriculum that educates and engages young people directly in elephant and other wildlife conservation.”

“Many students have never seen wild elephants, and giving them an opportunity to do so virtually is very exciting,” Dr. Plotnik says. “We also are using tablet computers to educate young students about human-elephant conflict issues through animated games and interactive programming.”

Through his experiments, Dr. Plotnik has shown that elephants have cognitive abilities on par with or that exceed dolphins, primates and even approach humans. Elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, joining other animals that have self-awareness, express empathy and lead socially complex lives. They can lend a helping trunk and cooperate with one another in fulfilling complicated tasks. Sometimes they even cheat.

Because of poaching, the illicit Ivory trade, deforestation and human-elephant conflict, elephants are in threat of extinction in this century unless steps are taken. The study that Dr. Plotnik coordinated with the students sought to test whether elephants could follow visual, social cues (pointing and gazing) to find food secreted in one of two buckets. By better understanding how elephants move through the world, and how they “see” it, conservationists, the thinking goes, can better protect them. But the elephants failed at this experiment. Instead they responded to verbal clues, informing them which bucket held food, an equally remarkable ability. The group plans to take this experiment further by testing elephants’ sense of smell (their huge trunk has to be good for something, right?).

Dr. Plotnik, a psychologist living in Thailand, founded Think Elephants three years ago while he was performing cognitive research on elephants. He began thinking about the ways he could expand his scope to incorporate other facets of conservation and education.

Elephants, to him, seemed like the perfect animal to teach conservation because they are both highly endangered and majestic; kids everywhere are wowed by the site of an elephant. He wanted to provide a way to “teach young people about conserving the environment and protecting endangered species using the study of animal behavior.”

Plotnik contacted David Getz, a middle school principal in Manhattan and children’s book author. Getz and Plotnik first met many years back when an 8-year-old Plotnik wrote Getz a fan letter. Getz responded and they became penpals (this, unto itself, is an interesting story, but I won’t go into it any further). So it seems only perfect that Plotnik would contact Getz for student outreach, as Getz had done that for Plotnik 10-plus years earlier.

Through this middle school-Thailand alliance, they were able to build a two-year after-school curriculum for middle school students using technology as a way to bridge the geographical gap. “It’s a 100-plus hours of curriculum materials where the kids come into school twice a week after school for an hour,” Dr. Plotnik says. “And they learn about not only elephants, but also about a wealth of different topics in science,” .

Using Skype and other video and digital technologies, the students met with scientists from across the globe, as well as witnessed the elephants in their natural habitats. The students were even able to ask researchers to perform experiments in real time and watch them unfold in front of their eyes. I myself got an opportunity to Skype with the elephants, and let me say, it’s pretty cool.

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 8.37.25 PM

With the video and digital technology as an anchor, the students learned scientific fundamentals such as hypothesis and experiment design, controls, and research implementation. In the end, students designed their own scientific experiment.

Getz says the program was such a resounding success because of the work of the middle school teachers and Plotnik, as well as the unique opportunity the technology created. What makes the Think Elephants project so applicable to a middle school audience is both the students’ aptitude for the topics and their ability to dream. For middle schoolers, If you give them a baseball uniform, they are a professional baseball player. In terms of Think Elephants, if you let them put on “the intellectual mantle of being an expert, [they] are a cognitive scientist.”

The ability to interact one on one, in real time, thousands of miles away helped these kids feel like actual scientists. It’s possible that this curriculum could have been taught through books and homework, but it probably wouldn’t have bred the same independent thought and creativity. And that’s  why Plotnik thinks this program is so important. Think Elephants’ education program in NYC was a pilot that the organization plans to expand to Thai schools later in 2013.

Students hungry for knowledge were able to link up digitally with firsthand sources to create a context and foundation no textbook could. Getz believes that it’s not just the out-of-the-box curricula and advances in telecommunication and video tools but the opportunity it creates. In his words, it “amplifies your resources.” Kids don’t learn better because of the gadgets in front of them, but the gadgets do provide numerous more materials that weren’t otherwise present.

“We’re giving young people an opportunity to do things that I think many academics used to believe was part of the gentlemen’s club,” Plotnik says. “You couldn’t be an author on a paper unless you had a PhD. And that’s changing.”