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BeastBox by Ben Mirin and Cornell Lab Launched Across the Internet

By Ben Mirin, Safina Center Fellow

When I was three years old my mother bought me a book on penguins. I couldn’t read it, but I memorized the name of each species by its picture, and went to visit the Boston Aquarium to stare at the cackling Rockhopper Penguins. For me that’s where every trip to the aquarium really began.

My penguin passion precipitated a lifelong obsession with watching birds. According to my parents, the only tantrum I ever threw was when they took me away from watching the ducks at the entrance to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. When I was in high school I volunteered for Earth Watch and learned how to band birds in the Carpathian Basin in Eastern Europe. Living in Concord, Massachusetts, I learned to express my passion for nature by reading the works of Emerson and Thoreau, and I even got to confess my love of birds in a speech I gave to my high school senior year.

Over the past four years I’ve used music as a vehicle for sharing my ornithological passions with the world, and now I’m delighted to launch my first computer game based on that concept. The name of the game is BeastBox, and it lets anyone make music from animal sounds and remix them over a selection of beatbox beats. Originally launched on Cornell Lab’s interactive learning platform, Bird Academy, the game was launched this weekend on BrainPop, an educational website that reaches millions of students in classrooms around the world.

One of my favorite aspects of the game is the scrolling feature, which allows users to learn more about the animals in the game and hear their sounds as they were recorded in the wild. In addition to the game itself, the Cornell Lab has released a free K-12 curriculum teachers can use to incorporate BeastBox into classroom activities. As someone who struggled with science in school, I wish I’d had this game as part of my classes, and I cannot wait to see how it works for other students going forward.

The launch of BeastBox represents a meaningful step in my journey as a Safina Fellow. Throughout the course of my fellowship I have worked closely with this family of creative science communicators to develop programs that speak to the hearts and minds of future conservationists. Education has accordingly become a perennial topic of discussion in our little house on Long Island. After all, a classroom provides an ideal laboratory in which to test new approaches for interpreting, communicating and teaching natural science. As conservationists, we are driven to enter that laboratory, to innovate how we transfer environmental awareness to young people and foster creative solutions to the environmental problems we see today.

In just the past few months, I’ve taken BeastBox on the road and watched as students fell in love with its dancing characters, wrote environmental rap lyrics to its beats, and produced their own music videos about its featured ecosystems. I even joined one class for a field trip in Wisconsin to record some of their own nature sounds and experience the importance of listening to nature firsthand. These experiences have left me humbled and amazed that my combinations of nature and music could resonate with so many people, and even more excited that they might prove useful to science education.

Photo: Horicon Marsh Nature Center

Photo: Horicon Marsh Nature Center

As 2018 draws to a close, we are all prone to take stock of the benchmarks we have reached and the achievements we’ve made over the last twelve months. In times when science and the environment are under constant attack, small victories in science communication become precious tokens of our willingness to fight for the planet we love. I cannot be sure if the games, films, music or television I have produced as a Safina Fellow will make concrete differences for the future of wildlife, but these investments in education, like those in conservation, are predicated on hope and take patience to observe. In the company of truly outstanding minds like those I’ve worked with, waiting for results doesn’t seem as scary. If anything, it feels like an opportunity to collect evidence for new ideas and prepare to throw my next hail mary into uncharted territory. The planet deserves nothing less.

My team and I will be collecting user data on BeastBox to facilitate future innovations around the game, and we hope you and your families enjoy playing it. Schools and educators with BrainPop accounts can play the game directly on their platform. For everyone else, BeastBox remains freely available on Bird Academy.

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