National Geographic’s Technology Comes to T.C. Williams

Students at T.C. Williams Minnie Howard campus were treated to a presentation on Friday, February 28, by National Geographic expert Birgit Buhleier!

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 on 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.”

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, schedule for 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.

“Most of the students 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.

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

On the sudden fill-in, Buhleier joked, “This is my target audience,” explaining that her children are 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. Buhleier has deployed over 100 Crittercams in Alaska, the Arctic, and Antarctica, in addition to producing the documentaries Bear Island and Emperors of the Ice.

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 $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.”

The first Crittercam run times were limited by 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 for them, 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 https://www.nationalgeographic.org/education/crittercam-education/. The sponsoring organization, USA Science and Engineering Festival, which calls itself the Superbowl of STEM, was scheduled to be held at D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center April 25-26. It has been postponed, with no future date yet determined. More information can be found at www.usasciencefestival.org/.

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