Teachers as Citizen Climate Scientists

September 1, 2021
Teachers as Citizen Climate Scientists

Educators from around Boston come to the Arnold Arboretum for its Summer Institute—a multi-day professional development workshop exploring life science and nature curriculum for children

By Ana Maria Caballero McGuire, Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Each summer, teachers from around Boston come to the Arnold Arboretum for its Summer Institute—a multi-day professional development workshop exploring life science and nature curriculum for children. This year the Arboretum joined forces with the Harvard Museum of Natural History to present Observing Climate Change in the Landscape, a Summer Institute for middle and high school teachers. Under a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, the 3-day curriculum was developed to build on work done by educators using natural history collections to teach, with the goal of putting the collections in the hands of middle and high school students. A lesson focused on herbaria is under development, but nineteen lucky teachers from Boston and surrounding communities received a behind-the-scenes look at an exciting new way to teach about climate change.

Field work has always been a standard part of a botanist’s education. Even amateur naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau spent time daily in the outdoors, observing and recording the living things around his cabin on Walden Pond and later during his walks around Concord. In all, Thoreau maintained almost 50 notebooks filled with observations, musings, and commentary; he wrote 2 million words in journals dating from October 1837 through November 1861.

Botanical field work also entails collecting plant material to press into herbarium specimens. The Harvard University Herbaria is a repository of over 5 million specimens, and these plant specimens and their associated data are often mined for scientific study. The digitization of its holdings is a key part in granting access to scientists interested in many lines of inquiry related to evolution, phenology, and climate change.

Taken together, journals and herbaria provide climate scientists many data sets to analyze. Teachers too can access simplified data sets and primary source material to teach their students valuable scientific skills. This, in essence, was the goal of the Summer Institute. First, teachers were introduced to three target plants featured in several historical journals: low bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), and huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata). The Arboretum has several plants of each species in the Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden, so it was a natural location for teachers to practice field work and record data in their own journals. While the herbarium lesson uses dates of first flowering for each species, Institute coursework enabled them to become acquainted with the entire plant and to recognize their distinctive features including bark, leaves, fruit, and habit.

Teachers also spent time observing, journaling, and dissecting a variety of flowers in bloom in the Leventritt Garden. Although there is immense diversity of floral forms, most flowers have common floral structures that perform the same functions. Through repeated dissections and close observation, one becomes equipped to make sense of unfamiliar floral forms—a necessary skill when observing and collecting phenological data. Sequencing a series of photos detailing the different phases in flowering (bud, open flower, fading flower and fruit) helped teachers understand the reproductive story of plants.

The next day, in a virtual environment, teachers were given various first flowering data sets culled from the journals and research of Thoreau, Alfred Winslow HosmerPennie LogemannRichard B. Primack, and Abraham Miller Rushing for each of the target plants studied. Additional data sets were created by Charles Davis using herbaria records of the same target plants. Graphing such data over time, and analyzing trendlines, reveals clear evidence that these plants are flowering many days earlier than 169 years ago. When mean spring temperature data from the Blue Hills Observatory is added to the mix, teachers begin to see real possibilities in engaging their students with climate change issues using authentic data driven primary sources.

Field work and experiential learning activities propel students to connect with their environment at a local and personal level. Learning to create graphs, analyze trendlines, and discuss implications further the conversation to local, regional, or global perspectives. Together, these learning experiences can foster individual and student activism, boost problem-solving skills, and perhaps inspire scientific vocations. All of these tools must be part of any science curriculum for middle and high school students if we are to educate the next generation of citizen scientists—and through them heal our world.