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Trail Cameras: CCURI Network-Wide Research Project

Camera traps (also known as game cameras, trail cameras or remote cameras) are proving to be an effective and engaging tool for undergraduate research (UR). They are particularly well-suited for community college UR for several reasons. First, camera traps are easy to use. This allows students and faculty alike to achieve proficiency in a relatively short period of time. One brand boasts that if you can set an alarm clock you can use their camera. Other makes are more complicated but none are beyond the comprehension of even tech-averse students. Second, they are affordable. Simple field studies can be conducted with a few cameras. The durability of most brands means that the initial investment should allow for many field seasons of use. Third, the data collected from camera traps can be analyzed simply or in a more complicated manner to accommodate a wide-range of instructional needs. Finally, the images are visually appealing and engage students in ways that other methodologies do not.

An example of a basic UR project would be the documentation of wildlife in a given area (say, a campus woodlot). Cameras can be deployed with or without an attractant (bait or scent) and data analysis can be as simple as “taking attendance”. From there, a project can become more advanced through data collection over several field seasons or multiple camera trap placements within the same area. As the basic question of who is present is answered, students and faculty might wish to tackle larger questions that require different protocols and data analysis. For example, an UR project could focus on a single species or group of species. Camera traps lend themselves well to studies of behavior (such as scent marking of gray squirrels or social group sizes of river otters) and phenological studies (such as timing of antler growth in white-tailed deer or spring emergence of woodchucks). Advance studies can even be tackled such as population indices.

Bear Image

In addition to the UR projects themselves, I (John Van Niel, CCURI Co-PI) use my camera trap data to teach students research-related skills. Over the years I have accumulated an extensive catalog of images from personal and class sets as well as data from other researchers. I have created a series of lessons using that data where students manipulate the data to learn about analysis, sample size, study design, randomness, and the creation of research questions. In addition, I now regularly have students mining these old data sets for independent projects, often with no credit attached. 

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