On the last day of school, my daughter’s grade one teacher invited parents to attend a class awards ceremony. Each of the twenty-one children in her class was presented with a unique award. Although my attention was at first fully focused on my daughter (a writing award!), I was especially happy for a boy who received recognition for his ability to identify more bugs, birds, and reptiles than the teacher. It made my heart soar that she’d singled out the importance of the boy’s identification skills, especially in a world where people increasingly place little value on knowing what lives around them.
Although as a society we often talk about the value of preserving biodiversity, we don’t usually teach or place much importance on the ability to identify species, an essential skill if we’re to measure diversity. Yet knowing what sorts of organisms live in a particular environment can only increase the value one places on a natural habitat. Even in universities, many undergraduate biology programs place heavy emphasis on core courses such as cell biology, genetics, and developmental biology, while so-called “ology” courses, such as entomology, mammalogy, or ornithology, are considered unnecessary electives. It’s true that courses such as these may have been taught traditionally as a parade through the animal orders or phyla, with heavy emphasis on memorization and little on research. However, these days many of my friends and colleagues successfully combine inquiry and conservation approaches, along with identification skills, in teaching their invertebrate biology, entomology, and ornithology courses. Students who couple an understanding of diversity with approaches and techniques from core biology disciplines often make very insightful contributions to their fields.
A fellow biologist shared an interesting illustration that highlighted for me the sad reality of where focus lies for most of us in our everyday lives. In the image, under the heading “How many can you identify?” were two groups of sketches. The first consisted of commercial icons, such as the Lacoste alligator and the McDonald’s golden arches, while the second group of drawings represented leaves from common North American trees. I instantly recognized all the corporate symbols, but aside from oak and maple, I had to guess at the trees.
Recently I heard about a new project called Phylo  headed up by a group at the University of British Colombia. The project developers were inspired by a report  in Science that found that children were far better able to recognize characters on Pokémon cards than they were able to identify real species. (Interestingly as I type this, Word recognizes “Pokémon” as a word but underlines “mammalogy” with a red squiggle to indicate an unknown word.) They put together (and continue to welcome submissions from biologists in all fields) a set of trading cards available for free download. Kids trade and play with the cards in the style of trendy games such as Pokémon, with different species having different abilities and “powers” (aka “adaptations”) in their natural habitats. Educators who have used the cards feel they inspire kids to think about biodiversity and real world species.
Maybe the card game will be an eye-opening alternative for some kids. Even better, though, is to get a kid outdoors and turn over some rocks. We need to grab our field guides and look for stuff, whether bugs, birds, fish, or plants. A summer challenge for my own kids: who can learn to identify the greatest number of tree species just by looking at their leaves?