Video calling with elephants

Elephants on a Skype video call – talk about Skype savvy!

Josh Plotnik, Founder and Executive Director of U.S.-based Think Elephants International, founded the non-profit in 2011. His goal is to promote the preservation of a rapidly declining population of elephants on both the Asian and African continents. TEI scientists conduct research on elephant behavior and intelligence in Thailand.

“People are fascinated by elephants”, Josh explains, “but many don’t realize how quickly they are on a path toward extinction. I founded TEI because I believe the most impactful way to change the way people think about our planet is through education of children.”

And this is where Skype comes in.

Josh and his team use Skype video calls to bring live elephants into classrooms, far beyond the borders of Thailand. The TEI research team developed a comprehensive conservation education curriculum which was piloted at a New York City public school in 2011. The project culminated in a research collaboration between middle school pupils, their teachers and the TEI research team and the development of an experiment on how elephants read human social cues.

Skype video call

The research team has since had the opportunity to share their curriculum with many other classes, giving children around the world an up-close-and-personal encounter with the elephants — while promoting their conservation.

“The live sessions usually look like this”, Josh describes, “We start by introducing the elephants joining the call and give the students the opportunity to ask questions. During the call, we do several types of demonstrations, including full veterinary check-ups (body measurements, temperature taking, etc.) and feeding sessions. Elephants love sunflower seeds, and have individual ways of eating them. We really do bring the elephants right up to the camera.”

Skype video call

The calls that originally started with a laptop, a table, and an external webcam are now done on tablets which are much easier to manipulate when showing an elephant’s foot, trunk or tooth to the children. “All the work is of course non-invasive; the elephants aren’t forced to do anything and their safety is our highest priority,” Josh states.

Skype video call

In addition to teaching students to think critically and embrace the importance of conservation and environmental issues — the video calls give young people around the world the chance to learn about professions that can impact conservation issues: scientists, vets, zoo keepers, politicians… definitely not your classic career day. It also gives them the opportunity to “travel” to Thailand, a place they might not otherwise ever see.

Skype also allows the TEI team to connect with other researchers and scientists in the field and in labs around the world. And likewise, it helps the team and their research assistants maintain their family and friend connections while living in remote places of Thailand. Hunter Doughty, TEI’s Social Media Manager, explains: “I travel a lot for work so having Skype on my phone is awesome. I can IM my best friend in Spain and call my family in California, all while working from Thailand. I also use the screen sharing feature a lot when working on projects with our head of education. It allows us to collaborate on the same documents despite being on opposite sides of the planet.”

So what’s next for TEI?

With the aim of providing free education programs to every school in Thailand and to expand these programs throughout Asia, the United States and around the world, TEI recently conducted a study on 16 schools from various socio-economic and geographical backgrounds. The results show that “in urban areas, there is a need for general environmental awareness and exposure to scientific thinking. And in rural areas, [the] main focus is on addressing applied topics like reducing human-elephant conflict”. These results will help the team tailor their curriculum to the classes they teach, as they work to change the way in which young people think about the environment.

Once again, we are proud and humbled to hear how Skype is helping individuals and organizations in their goal to make the world a better place.

For more information about Think Elephants International, check out their website or follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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