Searching for Signs of Spring
A 20°F morning did not deter several Boston area educators from coming to the Arboretum this past Saturday for a close look at the many signs of spring visible in the collections. The landscape is already preparing for the new season, even if we are still clinging to our mittens, hats, scarves, and winter coats. This is evidenced by the arrival of several chirping birds, among them the easily recognizable red-winged blackbird. A pair of possibly-nesting ducks and geese were also enjoying a leisurely swim at the ponds.
Unable to venture outside for a spring search, educators nonetheless explored samples of flowering trees indoors. Teachers were fascinated by the large, silvery white catkins of the Rosegold pussy willow (Salix gracilistyla 690-75*A), and even more intrigued by the black pussy willow (Salix gracilistyla var. melanostachys 404-82*A.) They learned that these catkins are the male reproductive parts; some were already showing stamens with abundant pollen. A silver maple (Acer saccharinum 12560*C) twig bearing clusters of male flowers proved equally fascinating. Finally, a cultivar of witch-hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ 396-69*A) beckoned a closer look at its delicate and curly petals.
The brownish-purple spathes of skunk cabbage that dot the landscape at the edge of the meadow provide another sure sign of spring, alongside patches of wild onion and snowdrops. When working with children, it is important to engage all the senses in learning, and these plants really step up their game in terms of scent! Engaging the ears and eyes is easily accomplished through time-lapse videos of spring flowers blossoming and close-up footage of migratory birds singing. Thus, even when going outside is not an option, children and adults can still revel in the beauty of the new season.
Following this period of nature exploration, teachers engaged in a lively discussion centered on helping students identify testable questions for self-directed investigations. The Massachusetts Science, Technology and Engineering standards, along with Next Generation Science Standards, require that students engage in the practices of science. “Effective inquiry-based learning motivates students to ask questions and design scientific investigations related to their own interests and observations,” (Morgan and Hiebert, 2010). By starting with an outdoor exploration that raises questions for children to explore, teachers can help students frame questions that are testable—that is, questions which lead to meaningful experiments. Younger students learn to identify testable questions from a pair of choices, and can use sentence stems to help frame their own questions in this manner. Older students benefit from re-writing un-testable questions in an effort to understand their structure. Repeated experiences with outdoor exploration, asking questions, and discussing possible avenues for experimentation leads to better science learning and engagement with the practices of scientists.