Teachers learn about conifers

by Ana Maria Caballero McGuire, Children’s Education Fellow

February 7, 2018

fir close observation

Teachers learn about conifers

On Saturday, February 3, Boston area educators gathered in the Hunnewell Building Lecture Hall for this month’s Arboretum for Educators event highlighting conifer adaptations. Hands-on exploratory activities and a short walk near the Hunnewell Building allowed teachers to discover ways to identify four members of the Pinaceae, or pine family: fir (Abies spp.), spruce (Picea spp.), pine (Pinus spp.), and hemlock (Tsuga spp.).

fir journal

Observational drawing of a fir sample.

Teachers first spent time closely observing plant material at four stations. Hand lenses and a science journal helped teachers study and record discoveries such as the white lines on the underside of needles. This white, waxy coating surrounds the stomata, or pores, where gas exchange happens on a leaf or needle. Also noticed were the differences in texture, smell, and shape of needles between and within the four genera studied.

Simple mnemonic devices helped reinforce learning. Teachers learned about the flat and friendly firs, spiky and square spruces, and prickly pine packets. Each alliterative description refers to special characteristics of individual members of the Pinaceae. Once outside, teachers were able to apply this learning to gain confidence in conifer identification.

science talk

Teachers discuss characteristics of spruce samples.

This is the kind of investigating and questioning that teachers, and by extension their students, should engage in at any age. Presenting a variety of conifer plant material in the classroom, and challenging students to notice similarities and differences, sparks curiosity in how the natural world works. Once this curiosity is aroused, teachers can take their students outside to apply new learning and discover even more questions.

deciduous in snow model

Teachers test a deciduous tree model to see how it handles snow in winter.

Back in the lecture hall, teachers experimented with wet and dry cones, and were introduced to a simple investigation using models of leaf shapes to explore moisture retention. Another experiment created models of deciduous- and conifer-shaped trees to investigate how those shapes shed or retained snow. By teaching and learning both outside and inside, teachers can create lasting experiences that help children reach the new Massachusetts Science, Technology, and Engineering standards in more meaningful and authentic ways.

Our Arboretum for Educators events aim to introduce seasonal, natural phenomena to teachers and model ways in which students can engage in outdoor learning; teachers observe and participate in bringing that new knowledge back into the classroom for further investigations. Please join us at next month’s event, Is It Spring Yet?

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