It was the early 1990s, and the Internet still amounted to little more than e-mails posted on bulletin boards. Still, Brewster Bartlett was in Boston, competing with other educators to come up with a way to encourage students to use the Web in the classroom.

Someone suggested monitoring lichen growth as indicators of atmospheric health. This, Bartlett knew, would never fly with kids. The ninth grade science teacher pondered the challenge while driving home, when suddenly an idea hit him — literally. Bartlett had run over a skunk, and he decided right then he would teach his students to monitor the roadkill in his town of Derry, N.H. Using funds he won from a National Science Foundation grant, Bartlett created the Roadkill Project.

Sixteen years later, Dr. Splatt (as Bartlett reinvented himself) is still counting carrion. It turns out students took well to e-mail, later even to websites, and still revel in the chance to monitor a four-mile stretch of road they select. For eight weeks, the students note the number and types of creatures, the speed limits, and the surface conditions. They use technology to graph and plot the data and, under Bartlett's guidance, learn the scientific method to test their hypotheses. One student wondered whether new moons or full moons bring more animal accidents. Another wondered whether the highways or curving back roads were more dangerous. (Bartlett says the moon makes no discernable difference and speedy back-road drivers are much deadlier for wildlife.)

Gradually, word of the project spread throughout the country. At one point, nearly 50 schools across the United States were replicating the experiments. A young woman in Florida, for example, learned how humans throwing food from their car windows lured animals to the road, which lured bigger mammals to the road and saw many of them meet their deaths. A study of the roadkill in her region taught her valuable lessons about littering and the food chain.

Such unexpected results are the core of Bartlett's mission. His project has three goals: see how many animals are being killed, determine what roads are deadliest and why, and, finally (and most important for Bartlett), figure out what we can do to keep the kills down. In the first year of the project, Bartlett's students found 300 dead animals over 70 miles of road in one eight-week period — a staggering number for the students. "It's a big way to get kids aware of the environment," Bartlett says. "Lots of kids don't even know what's living out there or what's going on around them."

Bartlett was surprised that while his students didn't always appreciate the diverse ecosystems surrounding Pinkerton Academy, other, unexpected organizations did. He realized that insurance agencies were interested in the sort of research he was doing, not because they necessarily shared his concern for the animals, but because it's expensive to repair a car that has run over, say, a 300-pound deer.

Obvious lessons about driving the posted speed limit make more sense to insurers and students when they see firsthand the deadly results of whipping around a curvy, hilly road. But the roadkill project has bigger environmental implications that cause departments of transportation and fish and game commissions to pay attention to more than just the large mammals being run over. The types and numbers of animals being hit can reveal a lot about an ecosystem's health. A decline in dead squirrels could indicate disease or harsh winter. Or maybe it means a city has seen an increase in urban predators killing the squirrels before our tires do. Still feel skeptical about the research? Fewer squished, endangered coastal turtles might mean the animal overpass a city built is finally working. And Brewster's project can offer quantifiable data that New Hampshire's leash law led to a decrease in dogs being killed on the streets.

The full potential of the Roadkill Project has yet to be mined. Brewster's students began a new data collection in early March. Who knows what their findings could tell us.

(MNN homepage photo created from images by elliottcable/Flickr and Jasmic/Flickr)

Meet Dr. Splatt
Roadkill: One teacher proves it's more important than we think.