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Week of January 14, 2013

Revamped Animal Diversity Web reaching millions worldwide 18 years after launch

U-M biologist Philip Myers was preparing to teach a new animal diversity course for nonmajors, but he couldn’t find a textbook that contained the right mix: detailed information about individual species, lots of photos, and material about ecology and conservation.

So Myers and a few U-M colleagues created a new learning tool called the Animal Diversity Web, a searchable database and multimedia encyclopedia of animal natural history that was launched on the fledgling World Wide Web in 1995.

From modest beginnings, ADW steadily has grown to become one of the world’s largest and most widely used natural history websites. During busy months, more than 5 million pages of content are provided to more than half a million users worldwide, said Myers, who added that the popularity and global reach of his brainchild was “totally unexpected.”

“I would attribute our success to the fact that we filled a niche, and we filled it early,” said Myers, professor of zoology and a curator of mammals at the Museum of Zoology. “This was the early days of the World Wide Web. At the time, we were one of the only animal diversity websites out there. And once we began seeing the potential impact that we could have on the field of animal diversity, we ran with it.”

And now, thanks to the first top-to-bottom site redesign in more than a decade, ADW has a fresh new look, with more graphics, new navigation tools that provide quicker access to information, and added features such as daily “animal headlines.”

Animal Diversity Web began with students in Myers’ “An Introduction to Animal Diversity” course researching, writing and receiving author credits for text entries that profiled various animal species, from aardvarks to zebra mussels. The idea — unconventional at the time but now a widely accepted teaching practice — was that students would learn more by finding the information themselves than by having a teacher lecture them.

U-M undergraduates still provide much of the text for the “species accounts” that form the backbone of the Animal Diversity Web site. But over the years more than 2,500 students at about 50 North American colleges and universities have joined them.

These student scribes have contributed to the site’s nearly 4,000 species accounts. The Animal Diversity Web now features more than 19,000 images, more than 700 sound files, maps and videos, including QuickTime Virtual Reality movies that provide three-dimensional views of animal skulls from various perspectives.

While browsing the site, students and other users see how zoologists organize and categorize different species, and they learn basic concepts of natural history, ecology, evolution, biodiversity and conservation biology.

The Animal Diversity Web is one of the largest content providers for the Encyclopedia of Life, a free, online collaborative encyclopedia intended to document all known species of life.

The ADW project also has a longstanding collaboration with the School of Education to develop and test innovative approaches to teaching K-12 students about biodiversity and climate change. The BioKIDS project was the first of those collaborations, and it focused on teaching young students authentic scientific inquiry through biodiversity exploration.

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