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Nature Gets a QR Boost

Every year, our middle school students have the opportunity to rediscover natural science and biology within the 60 acres of coastal chaparral and trails around us. When we go on regular walks, we stop for teach-on-the-trail opportunities, learning about why the soil changes, what animal prints we find, and the names of plants (flora) and animals (fauna) along the way. Mule deer, lace lichen, hawks and turkey vultures, sage brushes, and wild turkey are often seen, and if we’re lucky we’ll spot a bobcat.

Our students learn by applying science, tech, engineering, arts, and math in hands-on, multisensory activities throughout our land. The culmination of every unit typically includes an artifact of learning, and in the past we’ve had some interesting solutions: recreating animal habitats in Minecraft EDU, creating hybrid dioramas with cardboard and 3D printed models, and more.

Not so secret code

This year, we were driven by a more outward-looking objective, as the students wanted to share their findings with the community around them. We looked for a website that was well-organized and complied with COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) requirements and settled on Google Sites, as we use Google Workplace for Education and its features would be familiar to our students. But how would anyone find the sites? We could easily publish them on our school website, classroom pages, newsletter, or another digital outlet; however, another method that has grown in popularity and usage throughout the pandemic became the obvious choice for students: QR codes.

QR (quick response) codes were invented in 1995 for an automotive company in Japan to track and inventory parts. The collective black and white squares were inspired by the game of Go. In the following decade, they became increasingly popular for marketing, as the printed square codes could be scanned to send a visitor to an application or destination on the internet. The design options of QR codes evolved to take different shapes, and devices were increasingly able to scan the codes. The functionality is now ubiquitous, as nearly any mobile device with a
camera can scan and use a QR code.

We found that creating codes was easy. When using our Google Chromebooks, we could navigate to our published sites and click the Create QR code button in the address bar. Upon downloading the code, students would then import it into Google Drawings and add an icon representing the flora or fauna that they created the site about. Print it, then done. They could then post the QR code anywhere on campus.

Tracking interest

We decided to take the project one step further, creating an account in TinyURL (a service that shortens unwieldy links into more manageable and useable URLs) to manage and track these and future QR codes for projects. Using a Glowforge laser cutter, we engraved the QR codes and instructions on a piece of plywood. After reinforcing and waterproofing these signs, we installed them in various locations around our campus and near the Fort Ord National Monument. In time, we hope to seek permission to install signs within Fort Ord where there is a cell signal.

Students are now proudly tracking how many times their codes are scanned, and they have made a lasting impression on the campus while teaching the community about our unique ecosystem and biodiversity.

Later, the QR codes on the signs could point to new ecosystem projects, such as videos or even augmented reality experiences created by future classes

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