How is a tree put together and how does it grow? How do plants build cells out of thin air? How do those cells build discrete structures with specific functions?
From August 21-24, 2017, twenty teachers of grades Pre-K through six, many of them classroom teachers and/or art, media, and several science specialists, came together at the Arnold Arboretum for the 2017 Summer Institute to explore questions such as these, and build their knowledge of tree parts and their functions. Part of an Arboretum-wide mission to promote education and economic justice, the Summer Institute is a four-day intensive workshop open to Boston area educators, designed to help teachers learn more about plants and enable them to create lessons/units of study aligned with the new Massachusetts Science, Technology, and Engineering Standards. The Summer Institute also facilitates the sharing of resources, teaching ideas, materials, and expertise with other teachers, and helps educators engage with the natural world in ways that they can pass on to their students.
Last year’s inaugural Summer Institute, Plants in the Web of Life, focused on an overview of biodiversity, plant evolution, phylogeny, and ecosystems. Building on the success of the 2016 program, this year’s Summer Institute, Build a Plant Bottom to Top, deepened elementary school teachers’ knowledge of tree form and function and helped them gain an appreciation of plant evolution and the myriad ways in which trees interact with their environment.
Using the NGSS Practices of Science as a framework, teachers engaged in obtaining, evaluating and communicating information; developing and using models; and engaging in argument from evidence. Guest speakers provided content through thought provoking talks in their areas of expertise: Arboretum Director William (Ned) Friedman walked the landscape discussing how plants, being perpetually embryonic, are vastly different from animals; Putnam Fellow Kasia Zieminska shared her understanding of vascular systems and the inner workings of roots and trunks; Research Associate and Senior Fellow Dave Des Marais discussed photosynthesis and the important roles leaves play in the environment; while Post-doctoral Fellow Sevan Suni shared her research interests and passion about pollinator-flower interactions. Additional content was gained through selected readings from a biology textbook and from gifted copies of Witness Tree Seasons of Change with a Century-Old Oak by Lynda V. Mapes.
Ample time was built into each day for indoor exploration of selected plant material and outdoor investigations of the Arboretum landscape. Inside, teachers spent time using dissecting and digital microscopes to observe the inner workings of flower parts. They also examined representative plant samples of moss, liverwort, horsetail, and other plant lineages tracing the evolution of land plants and focused on the evolutionary advantages that enabled plants to diversify on land. Outside, teachers were encouraged to engage their senses during the process of independent, silent, daily nature journaling. Teachers searched for a variety of distinct leaf features for use during a hydrophobicity lab one day, and photographed flowers and fruits for sharing to a digital collaboration platform. As a group, teachers spent time in the Linden Collection examining roots and trunks, using their bodies to mimic tree architecture, and engaging in simple yet powerful activities that can be used with children when discussing those plant parts. And of course, we enjoyed watching the once-in-a-lifetime Solar Eclipse on the first day of the Institute!
Another important part of the institute was model-making. Teachers linked content to practice by creating physical models of the inside of a tree, and a leaf. Models are only as useful the information they impart, and finding ways to improve upon a model to clarify thinking or using it to communicate information challenged teachers to think creatively and deeply about the science content they were learning. Models can also be kinesthetic–using our bodies to model a process such as water uptake or growth rings in a tree–or they can be simulations, such as using data and background knowledge to predict which flowers certain pollinators are attracted to. Teachers responded positively and with excitement while participating in these modeling activities. As one teacher summarized, “Learning needs to engage all domains since they form multiple pathways to understanding and retaining information.”
One way to challenge teachers’ misconceptions about plant parts and their functions is to probe their initial understanding of the content and elicit background knowledge. Each day, teachers partnered up or formed small discussion groups to unpack newly gained knowledge and figure out how to present this information to children. By engaging in lively debate and scientific argumentation, teachers gained fluency in these practices central to science, and will hopefully encourage the same practices in their classrooms.
How do teachers build knowledge of tree form and function? Literally, by constructing models of various plant parts to explain their function. Figuratively, by participating in content-rich seminars while working with other teachers to construct meaning, and learning new pedagogical practices to use with students in the classroom and outdoors.
The Arnold Arboretum Summer Institute 2017 was just one of many free professional development opportunities at the Arboretum. The direct beneficiaries are the hundreds of children who will interact with nature at a deeper level simply because their teachers participated in four powerful days of learning in the landscape. As stated by one teacher, “It [The Summer Institute] was engaging, inspiring, energizing, motivating, and sparked a new interest in plant study.”
To learn more about the resources available for Boston educators at the Arboretum, email Ana Maria Caballero or call 617.384.9032.