Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.
Primary school kids in Lower Hutt are becoming true kaitiaki (environmental guardians), thanks to an award-winning teacher’s unrelenting passion.
Dianne Christenson at Koraunui School in Stokes Valley, Wellington, is a teacher on a mission.
Less than a year ago, Dianne was the first primary school teacher to be awarded a Prime Minister’s Science Prize. Not one to rest on her laurels, she has now created a new project of epic proportions: a Kaitiakitanga BioBlitz involving eight schools and more than 60 scientists as well as many locals.
For Dianne, her work neither starts nor ends with the bioblitz – an activity in which participants record as many sightings of local living things within a time limit.
She is keen for her students to adopt a more proactive, long-term role in caring for their environment, and the bioblitz is just one way of finding out whether their kaitiakitanga (guardianship) activities are working.
Dianne is no stranger to thinking scientifically about conservation. In 2015 she took part in the Science Teaching Leadership Programme (STLP), which is managed by Royal Society Te Apārangi.
Through the STLP she spent time with a top insect ecologist from Victoria University, Phil Lester (who co-runs Lab in a Box), to learn things like the importance of bees and other insects as pollinators, analysing pollen, and investigating how insecticides may affect beehives.
In the run-up to the bioblitz, Dianne and her students have been learning about their native and endemic species, trapping predators, exploring rongoā (traditional medicine) and keeping bees.
She has been taking her pupils on several field trips too – from exploring bugs at Te Papa to spotting endangered birds at Zealandia and Ngā Manu.
"These trips serve to show a different side to the animals that they wouldn't normally get to see,” Dianne explains. “People have to see it, hear it and feel it to start wanting to take care of wildlife."
At Zealandia, the students were shown how to take photos of and record the details of each bird they saw into an iPad app, giving them an idea of what the bioblitz will involve. For the bioblitz the students will use the publicly-available app, NatureWatch NZ, which will let others see the findings.
“I really liked looking at all the birds,” says 8-year-old Hineana.
Patrick, 7, adds, “I liked seeing the kaka and the brown teal.”
“I liked seeing the wētā,” says Will, 8.
Josie, 8, agrees: “I really enjoyed going to Zealandia. It's too hard to pick a favourite – I liked the whole thing.”
Dianne and her students have also teamed up with experts at Mountains to Sea Trust Wellington, Hutt City Council and local scientists to learn more about how to safeguard the wildlife in their local streams, particularly native fish such as kokopu (galaxiids/whitebait) and tuna (eels).
The students and experts worked together to install structures, such as mussel spat ropes, to help these fish overcome the urban barriers that stop them from travelling along the valleys waterways.
The team also planted native plants around the streams, to provide the fish and other animals with shaded respite from the summer sun and better protection from predators.
“The five 'C's are really important and testing them helps us to see if the stream is healthy,” says Nathan, 8. “‘Current’ is how fast the water flows, ‘creatures’ is how many different types of bugs there are, ‘clear’ is how see-through the water is, and then there’s ‘cool’ and ‘cover’ for shade and shelter.”
Hazel, 10, says that the grasses they plant around the streams in Stokes Valley will also provide homes for native birds, such as those they saw at Zealandia, as well as creating hiding places for animals in the stream itself.
Dianne says the kids really want to get more locals involved in future stream rehabilitation and caring for the area’s wildlife, including sharing knowledge about the streams’ native fish.
“Our Kaitiakitanga Bioblitz is open to the public,” she says. “We’ll have schools, scientists and kaitiaki here from all over Wellington. I’m really looking forward to seeing it all come together!”
Photo credits: Royal Society Te Apārangi (portrait of Dianne); Dianne Christenson (mussel spat ropes).