The Virtual Herbarium goes to school

     Collections of biological specimens all over the world are being converted to digital format and made available online. Plants, animals, fungi -- it's all being entered into databases and, in some cases, made available as digital images.

     Through this process, biological collections that have existed only in far-away corners of the globe are becoming almost instantly available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. Biologists have been using biological collections for centuries to investigate all kinds of important biological questions. They have travelled all over the world to examine specimens, spending years doing it. For them, the unprecedented access makes possible new kinds of research that can be done only with huge numbers of specimens, and simpler questions can be answered more quickly than was possible ever before.

     But professional biologists are not the only ones who can benefit. Many analyses can be conducted by younger biologists-in-training as well. There is no reason why professionals should be the only ones with access to these global riches, this bonanza of biodiversity.

     The George Safford Torrey Herbarium at the University of Connecticut began databasing its specimens years ago but now has taken the process to a new level. Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, we will finish entering data on our vascular plant specimens in the next three years. Those data, plus images of every specimen, will be available online, as about 40% of the collection already is. This is a lot of work, but we believe it is worthwhile. We now want to make sure that  lots of people are aware of this resource so they can put it to use. We think biology students in high school are an overlooked audience who could benefit from having a chance to work with online specimen data, participating in the process of discovery, which is what science is all about. We won't be surprised if high school biologists using online data make some real contributions to our understanding of how the world works.

     Working with high school and middle school teachers, we are beginning to develop curricular material to help teachers use our database. We will post those materials here as they are developed, and we encourage other teachers to explore our data and to shape it to their own needs. We also will put links on this site to other web pages where information for high school students and their teachers is available -- lesson plans, ideas, data, whatever we can find. Feel free to suggest more if you know of them.

     The information that is becoming available is related not only to collections of plant specimens. Databases of information on vertebrates and invertebrates also are available, although we  will concentrate here on plant collections, because that is what we know most about. UConn has important collections of invertebrates and vertebrates, and information on many of these specimens has been entered into databases.  We will try to provide links to other kinds of collections when we have information on them. (For instance, information on other UConn collections, including a database of plant fossils, is available here.)

     If you have suggestions or comments or have curricular material you would like us to consider for these pages, please send an email to Bob Capers, the plant collections manager at the herbarium (