Twenty-two elementary, middle and high school teachers were engaged in exactly that this past August, during the Arnold Arboretum’s annual Summer Institute. With “Investigating Ecosystems Through Fieldwork” as its theme, the Institute brought together Boston area teachers to experience practical fieldwork techniques in the Arboretum using both the Central Woods and Kent Field as learning sites.
Catherine Chamberlain, Arnold Arboretum Fellow, gave an introductory talk describing commonly used techniques for surveying plant or animal life in the field. Teachers learned how to set up transect lines, how to determine the size and location of plots, and how to obtain data from them. Lively discussions ensued around random sampling, and how to interpret the data correctly—it all depends on the purpose of the investigation! Chamberlain also peppered her talk with anecdotes of her field experiences surveying grasses in Mozambique as well as in South Africa and Ireland.
Once outside, teams of teachers got busy choosing locations and setting up 2×2 meter plots in Kent Field to investigate a flood plain meadow, and 10×10 meter plots in the Central Woods to investigate a typical New England forest. Teachers used plant identification charts specifically created for this Institute to begin the process of determining the vegetation that was most common in each plot.
Teachers also read about and created simple tools to help in their investigations. For example, pitfall traps are useful in the field for documenting which ground dwelling arthropods populate each ecosystem, while Berlese funnels help collect leaf litter invertebrates for further study in the classroom. A quick tutorial on basic plant pressing techniques gave teachers the knowledge to use clipped plant material for preservation and mounting for later identification with field guides.
Other tools measured soil pH, soil temperature, soil moisture and light intensity. Teachers also created a simple tool using knitting needles and spools to quantify soil compactness in various parts of each plot. These measurements, along with air temperature, allowed teachers to connect the abiotic factors of each ecosystem with the living organisms found within. Data was gathered daily in an effort to understand how one factor might influence the others.
Another guest speaker, Dr. Pamela Templer, biology professor at Boston University, shared her talk “Role of Forest Ecosystems in Carbon Sequestration and Climate.” She also showed the participants one of her lab’s study plots located in the Central Woods! Dr. Templer is particularly interested in the relationship between abiotic components and carbon uptake by trees. Her Urban New England Project aims to identify how land cover (e.g., forest, urban, agriculture), CO2, and air quality (nitrogen deposition and ozone) affect carbon sequestration throughout ecosystems of New England.
Back in the field and with Dr. Templer’s help, participants used DBH tape to measure tree diameter at breast height. Allometric equations were used to convert DBH to total biomass, and then to convert biomass into total carbon uptake, in an effort to quantify how much carbon is being sequestered by the trees in their study plots. Teachers learned and practiced authentic techniques used by scientists in the field.
Field guides and ID charts can only go so far in helping to determine what exactly is growing in any given ecosystem. Fortunately, Irina Kadis, curatorial assistant, and Brendan Keegan, Arboretum Gardener, were available for a walk and talk in the field. Kadis shared her extensive knowledge of native plants in the Central Woods, describing how to tell a black oak from a red oak (black oak leaves feel like sandpaper), or how to estimate the age of an Eastern white pine tree (count the whorled branches along the main trunk.) Her enthusiasm and storytelling captivated everyone, and allowed teachers to indulge their curiosity and ask many questions.
Keegan began his walk and talk of Kent Field describing how it was formed, as a floodplain from the waters of Bussey Brook. Indeed, many of the plants of the lower slopes are water loving and have evolved distinct strategies for success. Teachers learned a bit about the medicinal qualities of some of the plants, and noticed firsthand how this meadow attracts thousands of diverse pollinators and insect predators.
Our final guest speaker was Marjorie Lundgren, a Visiting Fellow and Postdoctoral Associate at MIT. She shared her area of expertise in plant growth as it relates to photosynthesis, respiration, and water uptake. Her lecture deepened teachers’ understanding of different strategies used by plants for photosynthesis that came about through evolution as a response to environmental conditions.
For a final project, teacher teams created documentation boards—either physical or digital—that sought to convey their understanding of their study plots and their own learning as teachers. One team created food webs observed within their ecosystem, listing all animals observed and the most common producers found. Another created pie charts to represent the biodiversity of trees within a plot and their corresponding biomass and carbon storage percentages. A team of elementary teachers focused on “environmental justice” documenting the many ways elementary students can participate in authentic fieldwork projects, thereby elevating students’ scientific literacy and access to green spaces in urban settings. Still others found ways to synthesize information gained, analyze data, and paint a picture of an ecosystem at one point in time.
After four days of intense fieldwork (in very hot weather) and thought-provoking lectures, teachers overwhelmingly endorsed the Summer Institute as one of the best professional development opportunities they had encountered. Among the most valuable experiences were the access to guest speakers and scientists who shared valuable content, and the practical work in the field to test out new ideas and engage in methodology for data collection that is realistic with students. Teachers are always straddling the line between being learners themselves who cherish stimulating experiences, and being able to put into practice learned skills for the benefit of their students.
Finding ways to engage students with nature in developmentally appropriate and authentic projects not only furthers scientific learning, it opens up a future of exciting possibilities for young people. At its core, the Summer Institute 2018 was designed to promote just that—through fieldwork.