I’m notorious for supporting Citizen Science in school. While the benefits are clear, prepping the students to do field work can be very tricky. A field scientist often has to know a lot about many different subject areas, and that’s a tough standard for middle school.
This year I decided to train my 8th-grade science class in Earthwatch’s Resilient Tree project. The project aims at establishing a database of specific kinds of trees that the scientists in the project want to monitor. The students locate the tree by a GPS unit, and record the location, the health of the trees, some vital statistics like the width of the trunck at 54 inches above the ground, estimate the coverage of the canopy (which is what Alexia, Rafi, and Magaly are doing in the above picture) and try to estimate what percentage of a 10-meter circle around the tree has permeable soil not covered with hardscape so that water can actually get to the tree.
The measurements are relatively simple to take once you’ve done it a few times. What always concerns me in field research is being able to identify the trees we were looking for. I tried a number of approaches, and wasn’t satisfied with any of them. Ultimately I realized that the students really didn’t have to identify the trees; others had tagged most of the trees on the part, and all I needed to do was confirm that a Canary Island Pine was in fact a Canary Island pine and not a Lodgepole or Jeffrey pine (or, worse yet, an oak or maple).
I trained the students in the basic measurements on the school yard. We do have some trees, and measuring the diameters with the specialized tapes took a bit of getting used to. After they’d practiced it a couple of times, we were ready for the field. La Fayette Park is right across the street from our school, so we took all the equipment over and reviewed the procedure for determining the diameter of the trees. This one is a type of eucalyptus known as a Red Ironbark:
BTW, the building in the background is our school, Larchmont Charter School at La Fayette Park.
Students don’t like decimals….or fractions for that matter….but they understand the importance of careful and precise measurement, and soon were showing off that they knew how to get the tree location:
And to follow instructions:
And to CHECK the location for accuracy:
Measuring the trunk accurately isn’t as easy is you might think. Sometimes the tape slips:
Other times you get a really nasty sawed-off stump, particularly on the Chinese banayan trees (aka Indian laurels), which are planted all over Los Angeles on the sidewalk medians:
Chinese banyans are particularly difficult to measure because they often have multiple trunks at the level where you’re measuring. There’s no alternative but to measure one:
And then another:
and then another until you’re done:
La Fayette Park is a slough that took water from the Bimini Springs, about half a mile away, and eventually empties into Ballona Creek and the Pacific Ocean just below Marina del Rey. When the park was dedicated to the City of Los Angeles in 1899, it was covered with tar seeps and oil-drilling equipment. The city cleaned them out and had a pleasant park with lots of grass and open space. This is a picture from 1905:
Here’s a better one, from 1913, that shows the topography of the site. The park is clearly a slough, and it’s still in something of a bowl.
That’s why most of the students you see in the pictures are having to brace themselves against the slope. Not an easy task, as the students and I discovered when we tried to look up to see where the canopy was while walking along the slope. Our photographer captured Alexia with the challenges of walking and looking:
Such is the price of field science! And eventually the students figure things out:
I have no reservations about using Citizen Science in my classroom. It’s real science, contributing to real research, and there’s nothing made up or artificial about it. The students also struggle with taking the measurements and figuring out the instructions, but in the end they’re engaged and productive, as the pictures demonstrate, like Sage here:
All in all, a productive and happy experience:
Again, our school (Larchmont) is the building in the background.
La Fayette Park is heavily used by the surrounding community. The bearded gentleman sitting down had observed my classes for several days while we were practicing and taking measurements. He escaped from Iraq in the late 1960’s after the Ba’ath Party came to power, and has been coming to La Fayette Park to sit in pretty much the same place since 1970. He loved what the kids were doing as much as they loved doing it.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF PHOTOS: except for the black-and-white photos, which I found on the Los Angeles Public Library photo database, the photos are courtesy of Earthwatch Institute, our local Earthwatcher Ellie Perry, and photographer Carrie Lederer.