Climate Scientists

On a sunny fall day in Oregon students are outdoors learning about the new citizen science observation site in their schoolyard. With a mix of 4th and 5th grade exuberance and the seriousness of adults they are taking on the mission of gathering basic data for a section of their school yard scientific study and research area.   These students are part of the Oregon Season Tracker 4-H classroom program that is regularly getting them outdoors for real world science. As the teacher explains, this is the first of many data gathering sessions as part of their yearlong commitment to the program. This real world data will support researchers to gain a better understanding of climate change across Oregon.

regon Season Tracker (OST) 4-H classrooms are a companion to the Oregon State University Extension Oregon Season Tracker adult citizen science program . In the adult program, volunteers are gathering and reporting their observations of precipitation and plant seasonal changes in a statewide effort. Started in 2013 and targeting adults, it quickly became evident to everyone involved that the program had clear applications to outdoor hands-on “experiential” science learning for students.

The foundation of the OST program is based on a partnership between OSU Extension and HJ Andrews Experimental Forest located in Blue River, near the midpoint of the Cascade Mountain range . The Andrews is a leading center for long term research, and a member of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program. The 16,000 acre research forest in the McKenzie river watershed in the Cascade Mountains was established in 1948, with paired watershed studies and several long-term monitoring programs initiated soon after. Today, it is jointly managed by the US Forest Service and OSU for research into forest and stream ecosystems, and the interactions among ecological dynamics, physical processes, and forest governance.

Part of the success of the Oregon Season Tracker program is that we have also collaborated with national programs, Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) and National Phenology Network (NPN) Nature’s Notebook, as well as our local partner. A key role of our national partners is their ability to collect, manage and store the data, making it available both to professional and citizen scientists. This national connection makes sure the data is available long-term and easily accessible locally as well as nationally and beyond. Both of our national partners have easy to use web based visualization tools that allow volunteers and students to easily look at and interpret data.   In the classroom this means not only are students helping ongoing professional research, they can also investigate or research their own science questions using the data of others. Partnering with these national database sites also allows OST to stretch our resources further, spending our time and energy supporting the volunteers and classrooms in our program.

Zero is important data when reading the rain gauge!

Back at the school, it is 8:30 am and a student team is checking and recording the level of precipitation for the last 24 hours. The rain gauge station is set up outside the school entrance and is clearly marked with a sign explaining what the students are doing. Parents and visitors can clearly see they are part of the Oregon Season Tracker 4-H program collecting precipitation and plant phenology data as citizen scientists. The sign calls attention to their efforts and gives the students a sense of pride in what they are doing.

Students use a program approved manual rain gauge that is standardized nationally. They become comfortable reading the gauge marked out in hundreds of an inch and how to conform to set data protocols. They learn not to round measurements for accuracy, to read using the bottom of the meniscus, and how to deal with an overflow event. All skills that have math applications for what they are doing. Depending on the grade of the students these skills are new or a refresher of what they already know, but important none the less.

Students learned the rain gauge skills at the beginning of the year in outdoor relay races using Super Soakers to simulate rainfall in their gauge. Teams vie to see who can get the most “rainfall” into their gauge. The casual observer might mistake this activity for recess, but they are having fun learning the needed math skills. By learning to read the manual gauge to .01 of an inch they are following the protocols set out by our national partner CoCoRaHS.

The daily precipitation observations are establishing a piece of the scientific process. As part of the team approach, the observations readings are verified before dumping out the day’s accumulation. Students begin to get a feel for what an inch of precipitation looks like, both as it falls from the sky and what it looks like in the gauge. The data collected is then passed on to another student team that hovers over the classroom computer, entering it in the national CoCoRaHS website. Data entered by 9:00 am is shared on an interactive map, for any visitor to the website to view.

The data submitted to the CoCoRaHS website is accessed and used by meteorologists, hydrologists, water managers, and researchers. It is also captured daily by the PRISM Climate Group, one of our local OSU partners. PRISM gathers climate observations from a wide range of monitoring networks (including CoCoRaHS), to develop short and long term weather models that are in turn used by still more groups and agencies reporting on and studying weather and climate.   This is an important thing for all our adult and student observers to realize: their data is real, it is important, and it gets used.

So for those students that are worried that their data will just get lost in the mountains of reports submitted every day, I’d like to share this experience. This past year, I worked with a teacher that received an urgent email from the National Weather Service within a short time after the Monday morning rainfall report was entered in the database. The Weather Service continuously monitors for extreme weather, and were checking on the accuracy of the morning report of over 2 inches of rain. Quick sleuthing found the students had made an error in submitting their data. Instead of making a multiday report for the weekend they had made a single day report. This was an eye opening experience for the students, not only to realize their data is being used but also that scientists are depending on them to be accurate.

Monitoring a rain gauge is an easy lesson to expand or extend into other topics. Students can be challenged to look for weather patterns by comparing their own station with others across your county, state, and even the nation. Alternatively, by graphing daily data or comparing the rainfall data against topographic maps. These types of observations can challenge students to see patterns and make connections. This leads to investigating essential questions such as: how do these weather and climate patterns play out across the state and how does this effect what and who lives in these locations?

Observing fruiting on a common snowberry shrub.

OST students are also tracking plant phenology or growth phases over the year. They will be reporting on leaf out, flowering, fruiting, and leaf drop. By pairing these plant change observations with the precipitation readings, researchers have a powerful tool in the study of climate and the role it plays in plant responses. The OST program has identified eight priority native plant species that we encourage using if possible. These priority plants 1) mirror plants studied at the Andrews Forest, 2) have a large footprint across the state, and 3) are easy to identify. By targeting this small group of priority plants, we add density to the data collected making it more useful for our research partners. Our research partners at the Andrew’s Forest have many long-term studies looking at phenology and climate. They not only look at plant phenology but intensively study the ecosystem connections with watersheds, insects and birds. OST phenology data collected by students and volunteers allow the researchers to apply their findings and connections on a larger statewide scale.

Back at school, we now shadow a High School class. Students in an Urban Farm manage and work in a small farm on the school grounds, growing market vegetables and managing a small flock of egg laying hens. As part of their Urban Farm, they have planted a native pollinator buffer strip surrounding their large market garden. In this pollinator garden, they have planted vine maple, snowberry and Pacific ninebark, several of the OST priority plants, which they are observing weekly. They started their strip by studying the needs of the plants looking at soils, sunlight, and water needs. They then matched appropriate plants with their site, found a source and planted their buffer strip. Adding native plants to their buffer helps to attract and sustain the native pollinators in their garden. These students carry a field journal out to the garden and collect phenology data weekly as one of the garden jobs.

Just like precipitation data, observing and reporting on plant phenology has a set of protocols that need to be followed to standardize the data, and ensure accuracy. OST and Nature’s Notebook (our national partner with the National Phenology Network) are looking for the timing of some distinct phenophases or plant lifecycle stages. The students concentrate on looking for leaf bud break, emerging leaves, flowers and buds, fruiting or seeds, and leaf drop. Nature’s Notebook has defined criteria for reporting each one of these stages.

We have found students as young as 3rd graders can be accurate and serious phenology scientists with a progression of training and understanding. It all starts with being a good observer, one of those important science skills. We have found one of the best tools to teach observation is to consistently use a field journal (e.g., field notebook, science journal, nature journal) when working outdoors. A field journal is a tool that helps to focus students and keep them on track, and to differentiate their outdoor learning time from free time or recess. A simple composition book works well, is inexpensive, and is sturdy enough to last through the seasons.

Start with a consistent expectation of what a field journal entry will include and help students to set this up before they go out in the field. Page prompts will help younger students focus on the task. At a minimum, all field journal entries should include the date, time, weather, and location. Depending on the focus of the day, have students include sketches, labels, and notes on colors. Have students include at least one “I wonder” question they would like to investigate and learn more about. Use the field journals as a tool to help students focus in on the plant they are observing for OST, but also encourage them to observe everything around them. This broader look is what leads students to make those ecological connections that just may spark their interest in science and lead to a lifelong study.

Phenology photo cards help with recording data.

As students get comfortable using a field journal we introduce phenology. Phenology is the study of nature’s seasonal changes, and a scientist who studies phenology is looking at the timing of those seasonal changes and the relationship to climate. Although OST focuses on plant phenology, the observational skills can apply to wildlife and insects, for example reproduction and migration. Phenology is an easy observable phenomena that can lead your science study and help meet Next Generation Science Standards .

We use a fun activity to introduce phenology and help students focus on what is happening outdoors in the natural world. Start by having students brainstorm in their field journal a list of all the things they can remember occurring outside during their birthday month. They can use plant cues, animal migrations, weather and light. For example,, “the earliest bud break has already happened, daffodils are blooming, the daylight hours become equal to the night hours, and the early bird migrants have arrived” (March). Once they have their list, pair them up with someone who does not already know their birthday. Then have them trade clues to see if they can guess each other’s birthday month. For younger students you may decide to help them with a class brainstorm and write the different nature clues on the board under headings for each month.

Once the student have a good understanding of the concept of phenology we go outside to start observing. OST has developed some handy plant phase field cards that have pictures and definitions for students to refer to and compare as we learn the phenophases in the field. Nature’s Notebook has printable data sheets that students can take out in the field to record their data. We have found that by copying these data sheets at the reduced size of 87%, they fit into the composition book field journal and can be glued in to create a long term record of data at the site.

Using technology to create an informational video.

Technology also plays a key role when doing citizen science with your students. Both Nature’s Notebook and CoCoRaHS have developed easy to use free apps. The versions work with both Apple and Android devices, so you could use them on phones and tablets as well as entering data online with classroom computers. We take it one-step further and use the tablets to document the student learning. Each student team works on creating an informational video of the project over the school year. We give them the option of creating a video to train other students or make a video to communicate their work back to our partner researchers at the Andrews Forest. This video becomes an assessment tool for teachers and is something that the students enjoy. We limit the videos to no more than a three minutes, which means they need to plan it out well. They spend some of the slower winter months creating a storyboard, writing scripts, filming and editing. A 5th grade teacher at Muddy Creek School said, “The iPads engaged my most distractible students. Also, everyone was vested in this project because of the fun the iPads bring to the table. Basically, iPads were a great motivation to learn the science.” For Apple products, you can download a free version of iMovie for creating and editing your final product. There are also free editing apps that can be used on Android devices. Here is one of our early attempts using a movie trailer format

In exchange, “Researcher Mark” (Schulze) from the Andrews Forest is in a video we created for the students. Walking through the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest we visit one of the many phenology plots at the forest. Mark explains how the phenology plots are scattered across a gradient of elevations at the Andrews. This allows them to look at plant responses to weather and climate as well as delving much deeper, making connections to insects, birds, soils, drought and much, much more. Mark explains that he is gathering data on some of the very same species as the students, and looking for the same phenophases. He takes them on tour of one of the many meteorological stations at the Andrews to see the many different climate instrumentation and variables that they are studying. In the end, Mark shares how valuable their citizen science data is to the future study of climate.

So, what does the Andrews research community hope to get out of collaborating with OST citizen scientists? With the wealth of information they are amassing, they are also interested in seeing if the trends and patterns they are documenting on the Andrews hold true across the varied landscape of Oregon. There is no stream of funding that could finance this kind of massive scientific study except through tapping into the interest and help of volunteer citizen scientist including teachers and classrooms across Oregon. In this circular process of interactions between researchers and volunteers we hope to extend the conversations about climate science, and document the landscape level changes for the future.

It is easy to see how the students benefit, both by applying “real science” outdoors on a regular basis, and their career exploration as scientists. Teacher’s surveys report taking their students outdoors to work on science an additional 8 – 12 times per year because of this program. One Middle School science teacher says, “A great opportunity to get students collecting ‘real’ or authentic data. Given that the work is from a national source it also helped students take ownership of their project and feel its importance.” Students also learn and practice many of the NGSS standards and science practices working on and experiencing real world problems, not just reading about it in a text book.

Climate change is a real and sometimes overwhelming problem for many students, leaving them with a sense of helplessness. What impresses me the most with the students in the program is that they come away with a mindset of how they can have a positive impact in the field of climate science. When asked what they liked best about this program student surveys stressed that positive connection, “Helping scientists felt good.” “That I can make a difference.” “By helping researcher Mark, it was not just for fun it was real.” A good step in building the ecological thinkers and problem solvers we need for our future.

Jody Einerson is the OSU Extension 4-H Benton County and Oregon Season Tracker statewide coordinator.


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