STEP-UP Students digitize BBL’s banding records at the USGS

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The BBL welcomes a new group of students with differing abilities to start employment training as part of the STEP-UP program.

The Bird Banding Lab (BBL), at USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (PWRC), welcomes four new Fairfax County students with differing abilities to the Band-Scan Project for the 2018-2019 academic year. The students are digitizing and cataloging decades of paper banding records, as part of the Secondary Transition to Employment Program-USGS Partnership, or STEP-UP, at the USGS National Center in Reston, Virginia. STEP-UP is designed to teach students with disabilities and between 18-22 years old, skills that help them transition from an academic setting to a business setting. USGS supervisors direct the work flow, while an on-site teacher or job coach assists the student volunteers with their daily tasks, ensuring they have personalized one-on-one training.

Andrew Garcia, STEP-UP Coordinator and Fairfax County special educator, says the program’s successes include “teaching the kids valuable work skills, building their confidence, while also making contributions to the scientific community. It's a win-win scenario.”

The Band-Scan Project is of importance to the BBL because these valuable records are considered legacy data, which is defined as information stored in an old or obsolete format that is difficult to access or process. At the start of the Band-Scan Project, it was estimated there were 1.5 million legacy data records from the 1960s forward. To date, Fairfax County STEP-UP students have digitized and cataloged more than a half-million banding records since beginning the Band-Scan project in 2015. This is an estimated 36% of the legacy data set. Additionally, digitized and fully-cataloged records will be readily available for scientists who rely on the BBL’s data. Due to the speed, accuracy, and efficiency of these outstanding student volunteers, the BBL expects to complete the Band-Scan Project by 2024, which is three years faster than originally anticipated. This collaborative effort between the USGS and Fairfax County schools has proven to be a great success, as the STEP-UP student volunteers have had a lower error rate than contractors previously hired, who have traditionally filled these roles.

Six STEP-UP graduates have been offered employment at the National Center in Virginia, under special hiring authority, which ensures the USGS has a more dynamic and inclusive workforce. These students include Kevin Kim and Nicholas Gillespie, who are continuing their work on the Band-Scan Project as employees.

STEP-UP Program Coordinator, Chris Hammond says he believes the program was able to launch and is so well-received because scientists are risk-takers and they know “the greatest things come when you try something different.” 

The current students are part of a larger class of 14 students, who are going to be rotating between different work stations within the National Center for the duration of the academic year. Since the BBL at PWRC started working with Fairfax County in 2012 at the National Center in Reston, Virginia, the program has grown to include partnerships with schools in Cincinnati, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Menlo Park, California. Even though STEP-UP only has five locations, student volunteers can help with projects remotely nationwide.