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December 22, 2016

"It’s a grand slam for all involved,” said Dawn Childs, USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units.  “Recent high school graduates with special needs get real-world experience while helping USGS scientists on projects ranging from grizzly bears and energy to historic documents and bird migration. And a school system gets to successfully train students to enter the workforce."



USGS Museum, historic preservation
Student dusts the Model A Ford coupe used by USGS scientists from the 1930s to 1965. (Credit: USGS. Public domain.)

In 2014, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell formalized a Youth Initiative to expand career, educational, volunteer, and recreational opportunities for youth and veterans on the nation’s public lands, including partnerships with businesses.

One unique program that does just this is a partnership between USGS and the Fairfax County Public Schools to provide students with disabilities with actual employment training. Students from the county’s STEP program (Secondary Transition to Employment Program) are matched with a USGS mentor or project team from across the country. The result: a win-win for science, students, and schools.

"It’s a grand slam for all involved,” said Dawn Childs, an information specialist with the USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units.  “Recent high school graduates with special needs get real-world experience while helping USGS scientists on projects ranging from grizzly bears and energy to historic documents and bird migration. And a school system gets to successfully train students to enter the workforce."

Digitizing land change and energy development in the Prairie Potholes

The USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Montana had thousands of data points to digitize for a project that evaluated the ecological effects of energy development in the Williston Basin.

Former volunteer Kevin Kim’s work on the energy project was so outstanding that he was later hired by the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Bird Banding Lab (BBL).  As a volunteer,  Kim helped geologist Todd Preston by using mapping software to digitize and map more than 21,000 well pads over a period of two years. Preston said Kim’s work was so invaluable that he listed the student as an author on a recent scientific paper.

The dataset can now be used for different projects, including describing past land cover change and determining areas of greatest conservation need in the vast Prairie Pothole region. Kim, said Preston, developed a truly unique dataset with his manual digitization work. 

Patuxent Bird Banding Lab Field Trip
Fairfax County Public School volunteers, teachers, and USGS staff visit the Bird Banding Lab basement storage facility at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Science Center. The field trip was led by USGS biological science technician Elaine Nakash.(Public domain.)

Decoding the information contained in hundreds of thousands of bird bands

Since 1920, the BBL has tracked the data obtained from birds banded in North America. The BBL has several hundred bird banding schedules representing thousands of banding events prepared to scan and digitize. The data from these bands allows researchers to study bird migration, behavior, life-span and survival, and population health and growth. The data also enable  managers set science-based hunting regulations.

But hundreds of thousands of past entries  -- a wealth of scientific information -- have been mostly inaccessible.  Under the direction of USGS geographer Derek Masaki, nine student volunteers learned how to scan documents for digitization and to track data using spreadsheets.  Then they worked tirelessly to digitize this banding information, and in little more than a year, they’ve scanned more than 100,000 sheets of banding data. Consequently, this information now is able to be uploaded to the BBL data system, but also to the Biodiversity Information Serving Our Nation (BISON) web app, the U.S. federal resource for biological occurrence data. Additionally, several of these students were later hired by Masaki.

Of grizzlies and huckleberries, bighorn sheep and salt

A mother grizzly bear and her cub in Yellowstone National Park.
A USGS grizzly bear researcher snapped this picture of a mother grizzly bear and her cub in Yellowstone National Park. Recent research shows that offspring of grizzly bear mothers with a history of human-bear conflicts are more likely to be involved in human-bear conflicts than offspring of mothers without a history of human-bear conflicts. (Credit: Frank van Manen, USGS. Public domain.)
Image: Glacier National Park Bighorn Sheep Studies
The USGS studies bighorn sheep movements, population structures, and habitat use in and near Glacier National Park. Here, USGS scientist Tabitha Graves sets up remote camera at a salt lick in the park as a sheep stands in background.(Credit: Tabitha Graves, USGS. Public domain.)

USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center has thousands of trail camera photos triggered by wildlife are being visually analyzed by these students.  Their work is enabling USGS researcher Tabitha Graves unravel the importance of  specific food resources during different times of the year for grizzly bears (huckleberries) and bighorn sheep (salt licks).

To help decode the contents of these pictures, Graves and Childs trained the students to recognize and record the life-cycle stages of huckleberries (e.g., flowering, fruiting), as well as the number and age group of sheep using salt licks, an important but limited resource. “I’m excited to be part of this innovative program," said Graves.


Citizen science helps map our world, our coastal changes, and sheds light on climate change effects on birds

The USGS has numerous projects that use crowdsourcing and citizen science, which is scientific work undertaken by the public to help answer important scientific questions. Student volunteers were trained and worked on three USGS citizen- science projects: iCoast, The National Map Corps, and the North American Bird Phenology Program.

iCoast allows citizen scientists to identify changes to the coast by comparing aerial photographs taken before and after storms.
iCoast allows citizen scientists to identify changes to the coast by comparing aerial photographs taken before and after storms.(Public domain.)

Students working on the Bird Phenology program are helping to digitize information contained in more than a century of 6 million notecards about bird behavior and migration, all of them stored in government files. The transcribed and digitized notecards will contain an unprecedented amount of information describing bird distributions, migration timing, and migration pathways and how they are changing.

USGS scientist Sam Droege noted that the students working on these historical collections are so fast and so accurate that they are contributing vast amounts of important scientific information. “I can’t say enough good things about this program,” said Droege.

Historically valuable library collections

The USGS Libraries have holdings of more than 1.5 million books, maps, and other paper records, many found nowhere else in the world and of significant historic value.

USGS libraries map collection.
Student volunteer explores the historic USGS map collection.(Credit: USGS, USGS. Public domain.)

In an effort to provide the public with digital access to these materials, the USGS Libraries Program trained these student volunteers to scan complex and often delicate materials. The students worked primarily with historic USGS publications to be uploaded to Publications Warehouse, as well as scanned publications for the Biodiversity Heritage Library, of which the USGS is a member institution.

Former volunteer Ed Sagurton, who had the propensity for giving a wholly accurate Gettysburg Address in Abraham Lincoln’s dignified voice, helped upload hundreds of photographs to the USGS multimedia gallery project. Said Sagurton about his work: “I am the reptile expert; unlike most other reptiles, crocodilians have a cerebral cortex and a four-chambered heart like humans while all other reptiles have a three-chambered heart.”

Home Run for Earth Science

Student volunteers like to say that they liberate paper datasets, said Childs. “But not only are they liberating data, they are saving the bureau valuable time and money by processing tens of thousands of records.” USGS hopes the volunteers and teachers from the two participating Fairfax County high schools, Chantilly and South Lakes, gain a deeper understanding of the natural world and how it is changing.

Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum
The Smithsonian Natural History Museum offers hands-on learning experiences.(Public domain.)

This is a partial list of accomplishments from October 2013 through November 2016:

  • Over 122,450 Bird Banding Lab sheets scanned
  • Over 21,000 well pads digitized
  • Over 25,000 North American Bird Migration Program data cards transcribed
  • 6,528 wildlife time-lapse images record
  • 3,000 phenology images recorded in database
  • Over 6,000 aerial images or data cards reviewed and rectified
  • 3,000 document sets (over 10,000 pages) digitized
  • 2511 bird records reviewed
  • 1,527 ecology images uploaded to the USGS Multimedia Gallery
  • 1,100 books scanned
  • Over 1,000 files scanned, filed, or shredded, maintain database, digitize paper records; 500 security files created, entered into database, or shredded; 299 science publications, factsheets, and periodicals recorded to database; 211 stories for social media researched and authored; 100 digital object identifier numbers recorded in a USGS publication database, 42 citations reviewed for official fact sheet; 81 sets of unserviceable Government license plate returns for recycling and processed; 60 asset records archived in historical collection in database

Student volunteers work in the USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units, Core Science Analytics Synthesis and Libraries, Eastern Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center, Ecosystems, Equal Employment Opportunity, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystems Science Center, Human Resources, Office of Enterprise Information, National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program, and Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Bird Banding Lab.

President Obama has a commitment to increase the percentage of Targeted Personnel with Disabilities which every Federal agency has a 2 percent goal. Moreover, the Administration established a government-wide initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in the Federal Workforce.

For more information about the USGS STEP partnership, email For more information about FCPS STEP, visit the program website.


Fairfax County Public Schools Secondary Transition to Employment student volunteers
Happy Holidays from Fairfax County Public Schools Secondary Transition to Employment student volunteers.(Credit: USGS. Public domain.)


Chantilly High School Secondary Transition to Employment (STEP)

Executive Order 13548, Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities

Executive Order 13583, Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce

Fairfax County Public Schools Career and Transition Services - STEP

Schedule A Hiring Authority: Appointments of Individuals with Disabilities

Secretarial Order 3332, Engaging the Next Generation

South Lakes High School

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