Teachers are starting another school year, filled with the promise of new beginnings, curricula, and purpose. Eighteen of those teachers, a majority from public schools in Boston and surrounding communities, are heading back to their classrooms ready to teach their students field ecology and perhaps address elements of climate change through teaching strategies learned and practiced during the 2019 Arnold Arboretum Summer Institute.
The principles and strategies of field ecology were explored at the Arboretum’s Kent Field and Central Woods, where our middle and high school teacher participants established study plots to use during the week. Teachers took plant samples to press and identify, engaged in biodiversity inventories, collected abiotic data from temperature and soil pH to moisture and soil hardness, and filled a field journal with their sketches, observations, and questions. Daily visits to their plots increased the teachers’ confidence with the outdoors and helped them notice new phenomena each time. As one teacher put it, “My idea is to integrate fieldwork into my class as an essential component and routine so that students gain confidence and consequently are ready to learn from being outside.”
A conversation with Dr. Ricard Hallett, a research ecologist with the Forest Service, underscored the idea that observation leads to questioning, which leads to research. Often, this research in the field utilizes simple techniques for gathering data, such as using DBH tape (diameter at breast height) to measure tree diameter and gauge tree growth and health. Dr. Hallett explained how he tackled the “mystery of the sick sugar maples” in western Massachusetts by establishing plots, gathering data, and comparing it with observations of healthy maples in another plot. He also shared an app he helped to create called Healthy Trees Healthy Cities. Middle and high school students can easily learn how to use this app to check on the health of trees growing in the vicinity of their schools and homes, furthering their roles as citizen scientists.
A highlight for participants of the Summer Institute – an annual, free offering made available to teacher applicants since 2016 – is learning from plant experts who share their enthusiasm and knowledge with nature neophytes. Irina Kadis and Brendan Keegan delighted teachers with stories of individual plants, their uses, and their relationships to their environment. Teachers also enjoyed asking specific questions about plants found within their plots. The next day, Robin Hopkins, assistant professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University and a faculty fellow of the Arboretum, led a flower and pollinator activity in Kent Field, assisted by Samridhi Chaturvedi, a post-doctoral fellow in her lab. There is such immense diversity of floral forms, as well as pollinators that exchange their services for nectar and pollen. Teachers spent time observing these flower-pollinator interactions, noting flower structures and animal behavior, and looking for evidence or absence of herbivory on leaves. Group discussions furthered curiosity and understanding, leading teachers to design lessons based on these experiences in the field.
Throughout the week, our teacher-students tried indoor activities aimed at broaching the subject of climate change with middle and high school students. Street Art can be a powerful way to engage reluctant youth and tap into their knowledge base about the subject. Each day a new image was posted alongside a prompt to encourage conversations and sharing of ideas and points of view. In this manner, teachers began to see the potential of visual media to elicit background knowledge, assess for misconceptions, encourage activism, and open new avenues for students to engage with science. Another daily activity was made possible by a carefully curated series of graphs by the New York Times in a program called What’s Going On In This Graph? This program is an invitation to students and teachers to discuss in real time what they notice and what they wonder about a particular graph, map, or chart. It is fundamentally important for everyone to become critical consumers of data. This program helps students become adept at understanding the mountain of graphs and data that are used in support of climate change, and how they can be misrepresented to negate it.
Another activity to introduce fieldwork to students of all ages in a more manageable way, is called Ant Picnic. Based out of North Carolina State University, Ant Picnic is a citizen science project aimed at discovering what food preferences ants have all over the world; by collecting data, researchers can also figure out what is missing from their environments!
On the final day, Dr. Pam Templer, biology professor at Boston University and associate of the Arnold Arboretum, gave a talk called “The Role of Forest Ecosystems in Carbon Sequestration and Climate.” She articulated the historical evidence for warming temperatures, explained the natural and human sources for greenhouse gasses, and discussed the role of forests as carbon sinks. She also mentioned her work with the Urban New England Project and Climate Change Across Seasons Experiment at Hubbard Brook in New Hampshire, which mirrors much of what our teachers learned during their week as ecological researchers: observations, data gathering, hypothesis testing, and communication of results.
Teaching and practicing fieldwork techniques with middle and high school students provides a link between truly understanding ecosystems and the threats of global warming and climate change. After five full days of immersion in ecology, fieldwork, and climate change related activities, these lucky Summer Institute educators can head back to their classrooms ready to make an enduring impact on our youth.