Forest Mapper: Parent Letter

Dear Bear Tavern 4th-Grade Parents,

My name is Gareth Russell, and I am a Professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). A small group of undergraduates at NJIT is working with me to develop an iPhone app for scientific research. The app, called Forest Mapper, will attempt to identify trees from images of the trunk, and store the identification alongside the location to enable the efficient mapping of forests.

The identification part will use a neural network that has been trained on a database of images of tree trunks, and that is why I am writing. I live in the school district, and two of my own children — now finishing 7th grade at Timberlane — went to Bear Tavern. So I reached out to Mrs. Overman, one of their teachers, to see if the BT students would be interested in helping with this project. After some discussion, we decided that it would make a great project for the 4th-grade students to end the year with. So this letter is to tell you about what the students will be doing, and how you can help them.

The students’ task is to collect pictures of tree trucks, from any of 24 species that are quite common in our local forests, and submit them to our database. Of course there is a specific way to do this, and in class on Monday (June 7th) the students went out into the woods at the edge of the Bear Tavern woodlot to practice, using their Chromebooks to take the pictures and then uploading them when they got back into the classroom. The procedure is on this page, and there is also a video explaining the process.

Where do you come in? Now the students know what to do, the project is a scavenger hunt! The idea is that students will make a trip or two (or three…) to their favorite local parks or nature reserves, look for those species, and photograph them. And of course they will need your help to get there, and to do it safely.

In true scavenger hunt fashion, we are making it a game! There is an online ‘leaderboard’ which will show how many pictures have been taken by each student. There is also a point-scoring system, in which all pictures start out worth one point each, but the value of pictures a) increases as we get closer to the overall goal (100 pictures of each species), and b) as some common species get lots of pictures; then the value of those will decrease and the value of pictures for the other, rarer species will increase. The last few pictures can be worth up to 10 points each! Below the leaderboard is a constantly-updated list of how much the ‘next picture’ is worth for each species.

There is no minimum, and no part of your student’s grade will depend on this: the goal is simply to encourage them to get outside and learn about about our local forests and the great tree diversity within them, while simultaneously to contributing to a college-level research project. The plan is meet with the students again at the beginning of 5th grade, to give them the results, demonstrate the app and how it works, and hand out some prizes! 


Gareth Russell

Associate Professor, New Jersey Institute of Technology