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Middle School Students Are Saving Rainforests Using Old Smartphones

Topher White, founder of NGO Rainforest Connection, with a “Guardian” listening device made from old smartphones. | Image courtesy of Rainforest Connection

Hundreds of students from Los Angeles STEM programs will participate in one of the largest student-driven programs ever launched to protect the world’s rainforests. Rainforest Connection’s “Planet Guardians” program will guide middle schoolers in building solar-powered listening devices using old smartphones. These “Guardian” devices will be installed high in the trees of fragile rainforests to capture sounds of illegal logging and alerting forest rangers in real time.

Rainforest Connection’s Planet Guardians program involves workshops led by the organization’s founder, Topher White, where students will watch a film by Google, “Beneath the Canopy,” about White’s work with the Tembé indigenous tribe in Brazil, warding off illegal loggers that devastate tribal lands. Following the film, students will participate in live Google Hangouts with Tembé tribal rangers, before building Guardian devices that will be sent to the Tembé to help protect their lands. The students will also learn about why rainforests are such crucial ecosystems, how the devices are powered and how the solar energy is stored, how the technology ‘listens’ for sounds of logging, how data from the devices is sent and received, and more.

The workshops started on the International Day of Forests (March 21). In April, the devices the students build will be installed in Peru, Brazil and Indonesia. They will begin transmitting on Earth Day 2018 (April 22). Rainforest Connection expects the devices to protect nearly 100,000 acres through the year 2020.

“Our devices are currently in some of our planet’s most fragile rainforests. We believe having students involved in building ‘Guardians’ is an incredible STEM learning activity and nurtures an interest in protecting our environment at a very young age,” White said.

Once the Guardians are activated in the field, students can monitor the device their classmates built as it transmits live from the rainforest via Rainforest Connection’s free mobile application. Students can receive real-time text alerts about any illegal logging activity detected by their Guardian, as well as notifications about the sounds of rare and endangered species, and news about other school’s Guardians. Students may also choose to participate in additional online learning and arts activities through the optional semester-long Planet Guardians program.

To identify the sounds of illegal logging and other sounds, Rainforest Connection uses neural network technology that collect the entire spectrum of sound that each Guardian device captures in the forest in real time. Then, through sophisticated algorithms and Google’s open source machine learning framework TensorFlow, every sound is mapped to identify its origin. Since the software is also able to identify the sounds of thousands of living species from these audio streams, many of which are endangered, Rainforest Connection plans to make its audio data available to research universities around the world who study rare and endangered species in the next few years.

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