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National Geographic’s Crittercam Visits T.C. Williams

Technology Inspires Future Scientists

A penguin carries a National Geographic crittercam on its back to record environmental data. (Greg Marshall/National Geographic)

ALEXANDRIA, VA – Students at T.C. Williams’ Minnie Howard campus were treated to a presentation this past Friday, February 28, by National Geographic expert Birgit Buhleier about the technology known as the Crittercam. It is a device that can track animals through sensory data, video, and sound.

“There’s something amazing about making a social connection with an animal,” said Buhleier. “Crittercam makes that connection. It’s not just the logic of data; it’s also an emotive experience.”

FILMMAKER, PRODUCER, AND scientist Birgit Buhleier has played an integral role in the evolution of National Geographic’s Crittercam, a video camera system that has provided fascinating insights into the daily lives of hundreds of species. Through her work with Crittercam, she has sidled up to seals, sea lions and whales; studied the secret lives of great white and tiger sharks; and dived with hawksbill sea turtles. She has personally deployed more than 100 Crittercams on a broad range of animals, including many that are native to Alaska, the Arctic, and Antarctica. Birgit has lived and worked in some of the world’s most remote places—from islands in the Pacific to polar camps. She brings a unique perspective on the walruses, seals, whales, and bears. (Courtesy photo)

The event was part of the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s Nifty Fifty, which sponsored scientists to create STEM technology in advance of the main event in April. This was T.C. Williams’ second time participating in the program. The previous speaker was an astronaut.

Buhleier was a last-minute sub for colleague Kyler Abernathy and, as a result, her audiovisual presentation was marked with some technical difficulties. Fortunately, the students were unusually attentive and peppered her with enough questions to fill out the hour-long period.

Crittercam Presentation Perfect for STEM Academy

“Most of the students that were here have some interest in engineering, so the fact that this presentation had everything—it had the science, the engineering, the visual arts—a lot of students forget that visual arts are like a stem track and various visual arts are like the science,” explained T.C. Williams biology teacher Ben Matthews.

Matthews coordinates the stem academy which is a course track that gives students dual enrollment in GW University. Another course track, the T.C. Williams Health Science Academy also had interested students in the audience, as did the 9th grade TV production class.

Originally developed by National Geographic, crittercams help provide insight into the lives of animals, such as lions, that conservationists and scientists may not otherwise observe. Researchers are hoping to learn more about the behavior of lions to further help and protect them and their habitat by learning more about their social norms, hunting techniques, and reproductive practices.

Buhleier contracts with National Geographic now, but worked for NG directly in the 1990s to develop the Crittercam technology. The product was first invented in 1986 by Greg Smith and is trademarked by National Geographic. It was most widely seen in the Oscar-winning 2005 film documentary March of the Penguins.

For her contributions and ongoing collaborations with National Geographic, Buhleier is honored as a certified National Geographic expert. She has deployed over 100 Crittercams in Alaska, the Arctic, and Antarctica, in addition to producing the documentaries Bear Island and Emperors of the Ice.

National Geographic Expert is Alexandria Local

On the sudden fill-in,  Buhleier joked, “This is my target audience,” explaining that her children were a sophomore and senior at nearby West Potomac High School.

While the Crittercam is always popular with whales (clips of the humpback were shown at the start of the presentation), it has been used on many kinds of terrestrial and aquatic animals.

Asked about the most challenging animals, Buhleier said that terrestrial animals (particularly the Tasmanian devil) can cause more damage to the camera, but the marine animals can be difficult to find because of the size of the ocean.

It currently costs about $10,000 to build each Crittercam. They are still being developed and deployed because, as Buhleier explained, “You learn new things about [the animals]. We do this because we [always] have a new research question.”

When first Crittercams were limited by their tape capacity, but now they run on batteries. When a student asked why they don’t use solar batteries, Buhleier replied that it’s an issue she hopes the minds of tomorrow can work on.  She added, “Any of you who want to go into engineering, these are all projects that need doing.”

About the students’ questions, Buhleier later said, “It’s a concept that’s relatable to them and makes them think about what goes into it, and that’s what’s so rewarding in talking to them, because you can see their brains switch on.”

National Geographic has a series of educational resources and school curriculums involving the curriculum that can be found at www.nationalgeographic.org/education/crittercam-education/.  The sponsoring organization, the USA Science Festival is self-advertised as the “Superbowl of STEM” and will be held at D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center April 25-26. More information can be found at usasciencefestival.org/.

MORE: Two T.C. Williams Student Write and Perform Play at Kennedy Center

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