Hayden A few times this fall, commuters on U.S. Highway 40 probably saw a group of 44 elementary school students, wearing safety-orange vests, walking along the side of the road and stopping to stare at roadkill.
What passersby didn't see were the notebooks of data those students collected and organized into a map showing roadkill patterns -- and thereby identify wildlife travel corridors across U.S. 40 -- from the Moffat County border to Milner. The "Critter Control Project" map is so large that it runs the length of a hallway at Hayden Valley Elementary School.
This is the first year of a multi-year project that will conclude with the students recommending and maybe helping to implement solutions, the teachers said. The solution may be as simple as putting up a cautionary sign in a place that has been identified as a wildlife-crossing trouble spot.
When Hayden Valley Elementary School teachers Barb Paulekas and Laura LeBrun announced they were going to teach their second- and fourth-graders how to use Geographical Information Systems to create maps, the response was usually something like, "You can't do this with kids that young."
And as Paulekas and LeBrun sat in their Orton Family Foundation training over the summer, trying to learn GIS themselves, they almost believed it.
"We were trying to learn the program ArcView (a GIS computer program that creates maps when given data) and, to be honest, it was really intimidating at first," fourth-grade teacher LeBrun said. "But we knew how awesome it would be in the classroom."
The two women couldn't be happier that they stuck it out, learned the program and passed it on to their students.
Now, when they talk about their Critter Control Project, they glow.
"This is real science they, the kids, understand and they are actually getting to help out with a real-life problem," LeBrun said.
The teachers were also worried parents would be uncomfortable with their children studying roadkill.
"But they have been so supportive," Paulekas said. "Parents carry maps in plastic bags and record animals on their way back and forth from Steamboat."
One of the students' fathers is a Colorado State Patrol trooper, Paulekas said, and he has gotten his co-workers involved in the Critter Control Project.
"It really brings out the best in a community when you get together to solve a problem," she said. "The only problem we've had so far is getting out there enough."
The long-term nature of the project presents a special opportunity for younger students.
"The second-graders who are working on this project know they will still be doing it when they get to fourth grade," LeBrun said. "Imagine how well they will be able to analyze what they see during that second year."
Not only are students getting a chance to participate in science with real-life results, LeBrun said, but they are also getting a chance to understand how other subjects are useful in the world outside of the classroom.
LeBrun incorporated the Critter Control Project into her math and writing curriculum.
"Students ask, 'Why do we write all the time?' or 'Why do we have to do math?'" LeBrun said. "Now they are writing with a purpose.
"They are writing their observations for a real audience," she said. "It changes the assignment when they know a lot of people are going to read it and need to be able to understand it. They are so into this project. They own this."
Paulekas moved to Hayden from Laramie, Wyo., after teaching in that school district for over a decade.
"Students in Laramie gave presentations all the time that they had to research and give to the other classes," she said. "When I moved to Hayden, I didn't want to lose that."
Last year, Paulekas saw a presentation by Lowell Whiteman School fifth-graders who spent the year mapping eagles' nests.
"It got us really excited and we picked up as much information as possible in the lobby about the Orton Family Foundation's Yampa Valley Community Mapping Program," she said. Principal Mike Luppes was supportive of the two teachers getting involved, she said.
Once Paulekas and LeBrun had the training, they needed a project.
They were approached by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which has struggled for years with an increasing number of animal deaths and driving danger along U.S. 40.
"They needed data," Paulekas said. "And when a (representative) from DOW took us out and explained the project, we knew it was for us."
The hallway map shows photos of recorded roadkill, features along the road, such as water and fencing, and student theories explaining the abundance of dead animals at certain spots along the highway.
"When deer cross the road for water and food you may see a lot of dead deer," one student wrote.
"One idea to keep deer off Highway 40 is to find out where most deer are killed and put a culvert under the road at that place," another wrote.
"When we first started this project, we thought the kids would be scared by the roadkill, but it was the opposite," Paulekas said. "What they see is a problem that they want to help solve."
This year's work will end on May with a PowerPoint presentation given by the students and open to the public.