Scientists constantly monitor the environment for invasive species that may disrupt the natural order in waterways or other habitats. In the United States alone, approximately 7,000 invasive species in the animal and plant kingdoms inflict an estimated $138 billion per year in damage and control costs.

Zebra mussels invaded the Great Lakes in 1988, causing government agencies to spend as much as $1 billion between 1989 and 2000 to fight the non-native mollusks' spread.

Vital Signs, a program developed by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) in Portland, Maine, provides handheld computers to middle- and high-school students to electronically collect scientific data on aquatic environments, helping arrest the spread of non-native species.

Vital Signs -- in Maine schools for four years -- went international in 2004 to seven primary schools in Ireland, where zebra mussels are also a problem.

A Bright Idea

Sarah Kirn, Vital Signs program manager, said that Alan Lishness, GMRI chief innovation officer -- and car buff -- got the concept for Vital Signs after attending a car race. He watched a pit crew using handheld computers to download information from the racecar's sensors, then realized students could use handheld computers to gather scientific data for schools and the GMRI -- then known as the Gulf of Maine Aquarium -- as environmental research.

In 1998, the Gulf of Maine Aquarium turned to Pulse Data Systems, which created the Vital Signs software for Palm handheld computers. The software allows for data collection using peripheral technologies, such as a GPS receiver, then forwards the data to an integrated database.

Field Work

Vital Signs piques student curiosity about their environment by using methods that interest them -- namely computers, said Kirn.

"If you take a computer and get the students' attention, then lure them outside where there is something important to learn, you've engaged them in a different way," she said, by incorporating technology with the outdoors.

The program also gets students thinking about their environment and how they can help maintain it. Describing the experience as a "hands-on science lab," Gretta McCarron, Vital Signs project officer in Ireland, explained that students using the program gain a sense of ownership and responsibility for streams in their area -- especially when they learn about the negative effects of pollution on natural habitats.

Using traditional methods of scientific observation such as tape measures, depth meters, thermometers and pH probes, students record the resulting data in the Vital Signs software using their handheld computers. The data is then time and date stamped, and is easily transferred to a database.

Vital Signs Ireland uses Palm Zire 72 PDAs with GPS Navigation Pak, Bluetooth technology, built-in cameras for taking photos and video, and microphones for audio recording.

In the field, students first record their location using the GPS receiver. Then they observe weather conditions; stream characteristics such as width, depth and flow rate; water temperature; air temperature; water pH; the type of stream bed; and information regarding the surrounding habitat, such as how the land is being used and the vegetation and animals in the area. Students record all observations on a monthly basis, and they can call up the informational text and photos stored in the handheld as a guide.

Once finished, students return to the classroom and hand over their computers so teachers can upload the information to the Vital Signs Web site, where it is available to anyone interested.

In Ireland, this includes fisheries and industries such as farming that monitor how their actions affect nearby waterways.

The GIS-enabled Web site, currently maintained by Northern Geomantics in Maine, arranges data in a geographic context on a map based on the GPS receiver's position when an observation was recorded. Eventually the Web site, based loosely on the GMRI's Vital Signs site, will be completely maintained in Ireland as part of the Vital Signs program there.

After the data has been transferred to the Web site, the students use their findings for follow-up activities in class.

"They can draw graphs from their data or create bulletins to inform the rest of the school or parents about water quality in their area," said McCarron.

In the future, video conferencing will allow students from different schools to see each other's Vital Signs work, further promoting a common interest in shared waterways.

Crossing the Atlantic

Seven primary schools in Ireland test Vital Signs in pilots, and next year the program is expected to grow, said McCarron, adding that transferring technology across the Atlantic has worked very well so far.

"We would like to spend more time testing, evaluating and monitoring the system before we embark on mass expansion," she said.

Vital Signs first drew the attention of the Irish Central Border Area Network (ICBAN) in 2003, after an economic-revitalization delegation came to Maine and listened to GMRI President Don Perkins talk about Vital Signs. Kate Burns, ICBAN's chief executive, and 10 local authorities approached Perkins with interest.

Kirn explained that originally Burns expressed the ICBAN's desire to unite Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland through a common resource.

In the late 1960s, Northern Ireland suffered a period of violent conflict -- beginning with civil rights marches -- that killed more than 3,000 people, most of them civilians. Known as the Troubles, the period officially ended in 1998, however its effects can still be seen and felt throughout Ireland.

"The [ICBAN's] purpose was to foster cross-border cooperation projects and economic revitalization in those areas that have been really harmed during the Troubles," said Kirn.

In November 2003, the GMRI signed an agreement with the ICBAN stating that the GMRI would update their existing Vital Signs program to meet Ireland's curriculum needs for use in primary schools.

"The aim of the program is not only to teach children about their local environments, but also to make them aware of this shared water resource and their joint responsibility for water quality," said McCarron.

Kirn believes that the changes made for Ireland's program are a stepladder to improving the technology in Maine. The GMRI and the ICBAN agreed to share improvements made to Vital Signs, which will benefit future partners.

Invasive Maneuvers

Zebra mussels were first found in 1988 in Lake St. Clair, the small body of water connecting Lake Erie and Lake Huron. Within a year, they spread to all of the Great Lakes, and it was too late to stop them.

Because scientists can't be everywhere at once, they need help, explained Kirn. "If we get [students] to be the eyes and ears of the scientists, and gather high-quality data, then they have participated in science," she said.

Without predators to curb their expansion, invasive species can multiply rapidly, and zebra mussels are no exception. A female can produce 30,000 to 100,000 eggs each year. They disrupt the food chain by filtering out phytoplankton -- microscopic plants that live in the water -- which deprives the animals that depend on phytoplankton of food. This continues up the food chain, gradually depleting populations of native species.

"If you catch a new introduction of one of those plants in a lake before it's really gotten hold, you can remove it and keep that lake open, but some grow so aggressively that they literally fill up a pond," she said. "And they can do that from one small fragment of a plant that was on somebody's [boat] propeller."

The GIS-enabled software will allow scientists who visit the Vital Signs Web site to know exactly where a photograph was taken if a student thinks he or she has found an invasive species.

Both students and scientists would benefit, said Kirn.

"The students have become involved in a real project which is extremely gratifying and engaging for them."

Sherry Watkins  |  Contributing Writer