As David Mays walked through the snow-covered Central Woods at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University last month with one thing on his mind: saving the planet and the species that live on it.
As he passed red oaks and eastern white pines, smelling the needles and touching the bark from around the temperate world, the 17-year-old high school student wondered out loud if trees alone could can do the job.
“Are trees the only thing that will stop global warming?” he asked. “How many should we plant before we graduate? I want to support humans, nature, and save the Earth.”
Mays was one of 25 students from the Boston Day and Evening Academy in Roxbury at the Arboretum for a special program in forest ecology, carbon’s role in ecosystems, and how trees mitigate climate change. Designed as part of Boston Public School’s biology curriculum, the two-day program let students conduct hands-on fieldwork in the landscape and engage in interactive panel discussions with Harvard researchers.
Robin Hopkins, associate professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) and a faculty fellow at the Arboretum, said it’s vital that scientists take the time to explain, especially to students, how the work they do provides invaluable insights into the impact of a changing climate and possible ways to address it.
“Having the students visit the Arboretum was an invigorating reminder of how important our research is for understanding the impact of climate change,” she said. “It was incredibly inspiring to see how their teachers developed ideas into hands-on lessons with their students, taking them out into Arboretum landscape to observe, and teaching how we, as humans, impact the organisms around us.”
Hopkins took part in a panel about plant collections, research at the Arboretum in the field and in the lab, the types of data collected, and what it means in the bigger picture of global climate change. Other presenters included OEB postdoctoral and Arboretum fellows Samridhi Chaturvedi and Ben Goulet-Scott of the Hopkins Lab; OEB graduate students Meghan Blumstein, Jess Gersony, and Anju Manandhar of Harvard’s Holbrook Lab; and Tiffany Enzenbacher and Sean Halloran from the Arboretum’s Dana Greenhouses.
On the first day, students began by walking through the Conifer Collection, then exploring the Central Woods to become familiar with an urban forest. They made observations of mature trees’ distinguishing characteristics, examined leaf patterns, and recorded their impressions in their journals. They also looked for evidence of animal interactions with various tree species and learned how to read tree identification labels — the aluminum tags providing curatorial information, including plant family and Latin binomials for the species, Arboretum accession and lineage numbers, and where the plant was originally collected.
Then students walked through the Olmsted-designed landscape to the Weld Hill Research and Education Building for panel discussions on tree responses to climate change; the effects of global warming on insect adaptation and evolution, and on flowering plant species; and field research on the preservation of rainforest habitats.
Chaturvedi, whose research on the genomic basis of adaptation and speciation focuses on how butterfly populations adapt to habitat change, said she welcomes working with students to help them understand the value and beauty of biology.
“I really enjoyed talking to the high school students about butterflies as herbivores and their role in climate change,” she said. “I was amazed by their questions and how involved they were. I hope these opportunities help emphasize the importance of our research and expand their curiosity for science.”
On the second day, students conducted fieldwork along the Arboretum’s Meadow Road. They measured tree diameters, took air temperature readings, analyzed soil composition, and made observational journal entries about the shapes of trees. They also noted two different tulip trees accessioned in 1894 and inquired about the amount of stored carbon in each.
Panel discussions took place in the Hunnewell Building Lecture Hall, where students learned about carbon and water movement in trees; environmental changes that cause water fluctuation in leaves; plant collecting expeditions and documentation; and the wealth of information contained in citizen science plant databases and other important resources.
Nineteen-year-old Aaliyah Murphy said learning at the Arboretum was her favorite part of the curriculum this year.
“I feel like things I already thought I knew about, I now have more information, it’s all so much more understandable,” she said. “Everything is connected — life, biodiversity and climate change.”
The Boston Day and Evening Academy program is designed to reengage students who have fallen off track at school. The joint project with the Arboretum was inspired by the 2019 Summer Institute, which Day and Evening Academy biology teacher Jennifer Mills attended and called soul-nurturing. She said she wanted her students to have the same chance to gain deeper appreciation for the natural world, ask questions about what they see, and learn how to use field techniques to methodically test their answers.
Ana Maria Caballero, nature education specialist at the Arboretum, believes the best way to learn about something is to “get out there, interact with it and see the potential for working with it.”
“Taking students out in the field mixed with instruction and learning from on-the-ground actual scientists helps build students’ appreciation and enjoyment of the natural world,” said Sarah Barrington, a teacher at the Day and Evening Academy.
Caballero said the Arboretum provided a space for students to first connect with nature, then learn about the varied and important research that happens here.
“The students who came, came because they care about saving the Earth, and wanted to learn more about climate change, what it means, and how to find solutions,” she said. “Their minds were opened to the different ways they can become agents of change for a better future.”
Echoing that sentiment, Arnold Arboretum Director and Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology William (Ned) Friedman said, “It is clear that our generation has done a terrible job of stewarding the planet and its precious biodiversity. The amazing energy of these students, their curiosity, and their passion to figure out how to analyze and mend the Earth give me hope for the future.