Trees as Storytellers

Trees as Storytellers

he thought of talking trees conjures up images of the fantastical. Tolkien’s ents patrol the forest, Baum’s forest of fighting trees throws apples at Dorothy, and Marvel’s Groot guards the galaxy. Or, perhaps, we think of those who speak for the trees that cannot speak for themselves: Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, or the dryads of ancient mythology. But I would argue that all trees have a lot to say, if we are willing to listen.

Like all great storytellers, trees have an impressive hook. Each species, a different author, has different tales to tell. Throughout time, some people have listened to those stories, and translated them to a language we can understand. And trees also give us the stories the trees may not even know they are telling, the way a worn and coffee-stained paperback can tell of a voracious and messy reader. Students, lovers of stories oral, written, and visual, can learn from these giants of the forest.

IslandWood, a residential environmental education school on Bainbridge Island, Washington, markets itself to students as “a school in the woods.” On its surface, this imparts expectations of students while on campus. It is not camp, but a school, with all the implications of learning. But what about the second part? The woods as a term indicate the outdoor status of some classrooms, but also plants the idea very early on of the ubiquity of trees. Wood comes from trees, and woods come from trees. This school is where we learn among the trees. Students should be aware of that upfront.

These trees have a long story to tell our students, and the students are ready to listen. When the glaciers retreated from the Puget Sound area 10,000-12,000 years ago, in moved trees from present-day California. The seeds following the glacier’s retreat met an incredibly moist environment that was perfect for the establishment of gargantuan specimens. Even students with individuals of these giants near their school are unlikely to see them in such abundance, or in such a relatively untamed state, covered in moss and lichen.

Students’ chatter while clambering from buses onto IslandWood property is a good clue in to what familiarity they may have with the woods. Students will disembark the bus and are unable to tear their eyes away from the treetops. Audible oohs and ahhs promise for a week of wonder and exploration. Recently, a student walked through the arrival shelter and turned to a friend to say, “so I guess this is what the woods are.” The trees are our ambassadors to these students, and the story they tell is one of upwards growth.

At IslandWood, we teach of the “Big Five:” western red cedar, red alder, western hemlock, bigleaf maple, and Douglas-fir.

The western red cedar is a favorite of many students. On species reference cards, some of the cultural uses are listed: canoe building and basket weaving feature prominently. This already provides a unique connection to place; on their website, the Suquamish tribe introduce themselves as “expert fisherman, canoe builders and basket weavers” (Suquamish Tribe, 2015). This is the identity they first relay to visitors, and one that many students have already been introduced to. To say “this is what the Suquamish used to make canoes and baskets” taps immediately into their understanding of native traditions.

The idea that people tended this land for livelihood before European settlers arrived is abstract for many students. While they may be taught the names of local tribes and heard some of the stories, touching a tree that contributed so heavily to their way of life provides a new experience. I taught a student that the Suquamish use the cedar bark for making clothing, and then heard them explain to a classmate that you can tell the bark is good for weaving because of the way it is stringy and long. The instructor provides one piece of information, and the student is able to gain a deeper understanding from interactions with the tree. The tree is telling the story of its cultural history by making itself so accessible to our young explorers.

A trend that students visiting IslandWood are quick to notice is that many of the red cedars are turning brown and losing leaves. This does not match well with what they have been taught about the definition of evergreen, and they struggle to reconcile reality and the trees. An investigation into why some red cedars are dying and others aren’t will lead students to the reality of climate change. The trees, so long-lived, cannot adapt the same way that other species can. When confronted with this reality, student groups come up with creative solutions, many offering to water the trees with their own drinking water. The trees, for those who listen, are sending out a plea and tell the story of human excess.

The red cedar also introduces students to the concept of sustainability and giving. Just as a dining hall might teach students to not waste food, the trees can show that wasting other resources is avoidable too. The roots, outer bark, inner bark, needles, and branches of trees all serve varied purposes, ensuring that none is discarded. The characteristic swooping lower branches of the tree, which resemble arms outstretched, relate to tradition. One Coast Salish tradition tells of the appearance of cedar tree at the spot when an incredibly selfless man died. IslandWood’s Great Hall has a cedar statue of Upper Skagit woman Vi Hilbert. The arms of the statue are similarly outstretched in welcome to those who enter the space for learning. The tree that gives its whole self to the people who need it sits with its branches outstretched as a welcome for more users.

When students learn the red cedar and later point it out on the trail, the swooping branches are most often cited as their point of identification. When asked what those branches remind them of, the first answer might be “the letter J,” but given some time, students arms will go out in an open gesture to mimic the tree. “It’s the tree of life,” they say, feeling connected to the history of that species.

The Douglas-fir tree, a mainstay of this ecosystem, is another favorite of students. While learning about the tree, students inevitably discover a cone on the ground, and pick it up, many questions having sprung forth in their minds. As trees that can grow over 300 feet tall with few lower branches, the opportunity to have a proxy for what goes on above our heads is incredible. The cones are unique to this tree, and tell a great story.

The cones have a two-tone property, as the seeds protrude beyond the scales of the cone. Tradition would tell that those lighter colored pieces are from a great fire that ravaged the land millennia ago. As the fire raged, animals fled, and the mouse ran to seek shelter. Unfortunately for the mouse, every tree it asked for help was worried for its own survival, unable to help the forest friend. When the mouse came upon the Douglas-fir, it opened up its cones and instructed entry; its lower branches would be above the heat of the fire, and its thick bark would protect it from the heat. The mouse and tree survived the fire, and the cones show a vestige of that encounter, as there appear to be little legs and a tail sticking out from every cone.

After hearing this story, students become experts on Douglas-fir identification. If their eyes are cast downwards, looking for signs of life on the trail, they see the cones and are reminded of the story they learned. If they are up, facing ahead and all around, they will see the thick bark that protected the tree. The stories reflect the nature again, and tree identification by means other than leaf recognition starts to be a possibility for students.

IslandWood property, once seized from the Suquamish, was the site of a major logging operation. Students see many trees and marvel at their size and age, but a hike to the harbor tells a different story of these trees. The trees that they have become familiar with are members of species that may live over one thousand years, but this space in particular is a reflection of its past. Blakely Harbor is the former site of what was “the largest, highest-producing sawmill in the world” (Bainbridge Historical Museum, n.d.).

The site at the harbor is unmistakably the vestiges of a former factory of some sort. Some students come in aware of the logging history of the area, and they are reminded of that history by the remnant logs that stick upright out of the harbor, former supports for the mill infrastructure. Some students surmise that the wood, decaying, waterlogged, and now home to aquatic plants, are a forest that has been cut down. When presented with the uniformity of the timber, especially as compared to the forests at main campus, they are eventually reminded of some man-made structures, and then the history of the logging operation can be explored.

To many of these students, IslandWood is the pinnacle of wild. Yet this adventure shows the proclivity of some humans to extract natural resources past their sustainable harvest. The trees that remind the students to be sustainable and giving are the same species that were extracted, sent into the mill and out to be shipped to other parts of the country and the world for human consumption. The Douglas-firs that protected the mice from the fire were cut down and extracted, providing little habitat for any animals.

The average age of street trees in Seattle is 3 years (Brinkley, 2018). Students may understand trees can live to be hundreds of years old, but learning that Douglas-firs can live to be over one thousand years old makes their eyes light up with wonder. Even the relatively young trees on campus have been present for decades, watching the landscape change with the inhabitants. Coming to an outdoor learning facility where the trees reach hundreds of feet in the sky can instill a feeling no book or photo could. Let the trees greet our students with arms and branches wide open.

Marlie Belle Somers is a graduate student in the Education for Environment and Community program at IslandWood, partnered with the University of Washington.















Remnants of the lumber mill docks at Blakely Harbor. Students use this as a clue while investigating what came before our campus stood on these grounds. Photo by Marlie Belle Somers.












Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. (n.d.). Port Blakely: Portrait of a Mill Town. Retrieved from
Brinkley, W. (2018, November 2). Urban Ecology. Lecture presented in Antioch University, Seattle.
Suquamish Tribe. (2015). History & Culture. Retrieved from

Forest Schools

Forest Schools

When Water Speaks: The Power of the Forest School Movement

by Amanda Crawford

issouri is a treasure trove of outdoor places and wild spaces dedicated to adventurers of all kinds. The natural brilliance of the Missouri landscape is no secret. And yet, unbeknownst to many, tucked away in the heart of West County, a forest awaits discovery. But not for long…

The muffled sound of little feet treading on crunchy leaves can be heard as a small group of preschoolers make their way through the woods.

“Is the forest alive, do you think?” Molly, age three, wondered aloud.

“Of course it is! Because flowers are growing.” Nora exclaimed. She’s three, too.

“The water is talking to us,” four year old Arian stated observing the creek.

“What’s it saying?” Molly inquired.

“I’m not really sure yet.” Arian replied.

“I want to go down to the creek to listen,” said Danny, four.

And down they went, taking care to check on the friend behind them. The forest echoed with splashing water and playful laughter until the chill of early spring sent them back to dry land.

The slope was slick as wet rain boots met the muddy ground. One after another, the children climbed up the narrow path their boots had made on the way down. Grabbing onto protruding roots, low hanging branches and rocks within arm’s reach, the crew used all the resources the forest had to offer as they worked to pull themselves up. One friend, however, struggled at the base of the hill.

“Try to grab onto this stick,” Nora suggested as she extended a branch to Danny.

“No, it’s too small. We need a bigger stick. ….. How can I get up?” Danny stammered, looking up to his friends for ideas.

“Well you can climb up the way I climbed up. I had to pull on roots and it took a long time but I still got up!” Arthur, also four, explained.

Danny’s face suddenly lit up. “We can connect some sticks together! Nora can connect hers to Arthur’s and Arthur can connect his to Austin’s! Then it will be long enough!”

“But how can we stick them together? Tape?” asked Arthur.

“No, the tape is at school.” Nora reminded him.

“Mud! It’s sticky! If we leave it, it will dry and we can use it.” Arthur exclaimed.

“Look, he’s climbing! See, I knew you could do it, Danny!” Nora beamed. “And sometimes you slip and it’s okay. It just means you have to grab on really tight.”

“I can’t climb up but I have to!” Danny said resolutely.

Arian’s right. Wild places are talking to us. The forest has a lot to say to children; they are problem solvers and critical thinkers, they are compassionate and confident and filled with grit.

All of these skills came into play as the children rallied together to help their friend. Children want their communities to know something about the forest – that children have the right to play in them.

Forest school is an educational movement sweeping its way across the nation as research continues to assert the importance of time spent outdoors. Interacting with nature is as vital to one’s education as time spent in a classroom, if not more so.

Raintree is Missouri’s first Reggio Emilia inspired Forest School where children bask in the beauty of winding deer trails, wild flowers and a babbling creek every day.


Amanda Crawford is a teacher and forest school practitioner at Raintree School in St. Louis, Missouri.

Citizenship Education

Citizenship Education

Seeking Environmental Maturity at Starker Forests

Helping students climb the ladder to responsible citizenship

by Richard Powell

Starker Forests is a family-owned tree farming business of about 80,000 acres, mostly within an hour’s drive in the Coast Range west of Corvallis, OR.  For many years, we’ve taken people on trips to the woods.  These might be field trips for school children, university students, visiting foresters/scientists from around the world, or the general public.  We’ve hosted a number of workshops for teachers.

As our society becomes increasingly urbanized, we see people becoming increasingly unaware of the origins of the things they use in their daily lives.  We’ve had high schools students identify their electric hair dryers and modeling clay as not coming from natural resources.  A senior remarked that he didn’t know Oregon had rock quarries (apparently the concrete floor we were standing on just magically appeared)!  A group of high school students weren’t even sure what natural resources were but thought a dairy cow might be related to natural resources – although, they weren’t sure.  As an example of something not related to natural resources, middle school students often point to their classroom’s television.
To become a wise user of natural resources, it is imperative that people understand where things come from.  Our intent is to help them re-connect with the natural world and, more specifically, get a better understanding of the forest and the origins of all the wood products they use.

PowellarticlequoteAt the same time, we find people have little sense of the history of a landscape.  Students are taught the science of the environment but they do not connect that science with the landscape’s history.  We want people to understand that biology and history have worked in tandem to shape what they see; the landscape is a function of both biology and history.
Of the school groups we take on field trips, most come from elementary schools; a few come from middle schools; only rarely, do they come from high school.  Being so close to Oregon State University, we do get some university students and we get a lot of people from the general public.  We get a number of foreign visitors – foresters, scientists, landowners, etc.

Even though we take many school classes to the woods, we get very little feedback from the teachers.   [The best feedback is that most teachers come back year after year.]  The absolute best feedback we get is when we see a child a year or two later.  It takes very little time for us to realize we’d seen them before and that they remember quite a bit from their earlier field trip.
With adult groups, we commonly hear someone remark how a forester has to know about and care for so much more than just the trees.  Sometimes, we’ll hear someone say they have to re-think what they know about forests and forestry.  Now and then, they’ll remark how they still don’t like some of the things we do in forestry but they begin to understand there is a reason for what we do and it is based on science – it is not just about the money.

Though we take around 2000 people a year to the woods, we are foresters; we are not trained in pedagogy.  For years, we’ve had a nagging question: is what we’re doing working?  Do people “get” what we are trying to teach?  Does any of this stick with them for the long term?  Or, are we wasting our time and money?

This past summer, I attended the World Forestry Center’s International Educator’s Institute (IEI).  As an environmental educator without any formal pedagogical or interpretive training, I found this week-long workshop enlightening and very worthwhile.

The part of IEI that I found most useful was called the “Pedagogic Steps in Environmental Maturity”.  It validated what we’re doing.

PedagogicstepsIn essence, the “Steps” is a ladder and, to get to the top rung (i.e., “Environmental Maturity”), one has to climb up from the rung below.  For example, it would be futile to talk to someone in Swahili if they had not first learned and become fluent in that language.  Without that prior knowledge, we’d quickly see a bunch of glazed-over stares and we’d find we’re pretty much wasting everyone’s time.

Step #1 — Learn to enjoy the outdoors.
Just get people outdoors.  Adults enjoy a nice drive or hike in the woods.  Take the kids hiking or camping or go canoeing on the neighborhood pond or river.  Let them have fun.  We’ve always felt people had a good time, but, did they learn anything from their field trip and did any of that learning stay with them?

Step #2 — Experience and observe nature.
Smell the flowers, feel the sun’s warmth, or get soaked on a cold, rainy day.  Explore around a beaver pond and see where the beavers had burrowed into the bank to build their dens; look for a tree’s stump or a branch the beavers had chewed.  Have people simply stop, close their eyes, and listen; it is incredible what they’ll hear for the very first time.  In a few minutes time, people will never become an expert at identifying a tree but we can get them to see that the leaders, buds, needles, color, feel, bark, flowers, smell, taste, pollen, etc. vary greatly between tree species (no, they do not all have pine cones nor do they all have pine needles).

Step #3 — Understand the ecological web.
Now that we have them outdoors, they are having fun, and beginning to experience and see things, they can begin to understand what they see.  Pick up and look at and feel a handful of dirt.  As they see and feel the litter layer, moss, worm holes, roots, bugs, fungi, moisture, texture, etc. they begin to understand it is not dirt at all – it is soil!  (Dirt is what we wash off our hands before lunch; soil is the good stuff.)  Likewise, they can sample the water’s pH, dissolved oxygen, and temperature and see how those might affect the macro-invertebrates in the water.  They can see a tree’s cross-section and associate the narrow growth rings with a dense forest canopy or maybe see that the wider rings are due to a more open canopy.

Once they’ve seen the differing buds, leaders, bark, leaves, etc., they can begin to see how some tree species are similar while others are different.  They can begin to group similar trees into a genus, name those groups and the individual species, and begin to understand a tree.

Step #4 — Understand the interplay of man and nature.
Yes, we play in nature and we like to see and experience nature.  But, more than that, nature is the source of life’s very existence!  Nature provides the air, nutrients, energy, and moisture required by all life forms on the planet.  Take away any one of these and life ceases to exist; alter any one and life is changed.  This is the food chain.  Or, put another way, life is totally dependent on the extraction and use of natural resources for its very existence.

In addition to the food chain, nature is the source of everything people use.  Iron, sulfur, wood, cotton, plastic, gasoline, concrete, clothing, electricity, coal, food – in some way, all of our wants and needs are extracted from the environment.
Looking back at those tree rings, maybe they can see how those narrow rings became wider.  This was likely due to opening up the canopy by either a natural means (a tree died or blew over in a storm) or the forest had been thinned.

Step #5 — Make decisions on environmental issues.
This step is one we really wrestle with.  We know there are a lot of controversial issues over the use of natural resources so we strive to just stick with the science and the history of the land – on these, there should be little controversy.  [Unless asked, we endeavor to keep our biases or personal philosophies/opinions to ourselves.]  As Project Learning Tree says, we’d rather “teach how to think, not what to think”.  We’d prefer to let people take what they saw and learned and make their own decisions.

Step #6 — Be responsible for the future.
We’d hope, after going out and experiencing the woods, our visitors are better able to make more informed and better choices.  With choices comes responsibility and this would be the perfect time for a community service project.
As a practical matter, we see most people for just a brief time and it is hard for us to do steps 5 and 6 with them.  With students, we hope to plant some seeds that, during the course of the school year, the teacher can help germinate and grow.  With that, the students may make some decisions and then take responsibility.

That said, we’ve sponsored Tree Planting Day annually for more than twenty years.  We take a harvested unit, make sure it is safe, there is a reasonable traffic flow, etc. and then invite youth and their parents to come out and plant a few trees.  We’ve had as many as 400 youngsters and 200 parents on a Saturday morning though 140 youngsters and 90 parents is more the norm.  They have fun (step #1); we do this rain or shine and, usually, in the mud (step #2); they plant little seedlings that, hopefully, will grow into large trees (step #3); it’s on a unit that was harvested for all the products made from wood (step #4).  Further, they’ve chosen to spend a Saturday morning in the cold, rain, and mud (step #5) and help ensure that that harvested unit is reforested (step #6).

forest-fieldinvestA few months ago, we took a pre-school class to the woods; these were three and four-year olds.  Other than having a good time (step #1), what could these little guys possibly get from a mile-long hike in the woods; could they even get above that first step?
A few days after their field trip, I had a wonderful surprise delivered to my desk.  There was a nice poster with a picture of me kneeling down and surrounded by the kids; I was showing them a stick some beavers had chewed on.  Concentric, brown circles drawn around this picture gave this poster the appearance of a tree’s cross-section.
The good part was on the backside of the poster.  The teachers evidently sat down with the kids to debrief and find out/reinforce what the kids had learned.

“We made duck, cougar, bear, beaver, and a raccoon print”.  [Some years ago, we made some “sand boxes” across the road so kids could make animal tracks with some rubber prints.]  — Step #1

“The bear foot print was the biggest; we heard birds; we learned a fir cone; we saw lots of trees”. — Step #2

“We count the rings of the tree to find out the age of the tree; trees need water; if trees don’t have water, they will not grow; trees need sun, water, air, just like us”.  — Step #3

“We saw the letter ‘S’ on trees. ‘S’ trees were dead”. — [This particular plantation was on ground that had been burned around 1850 and, post-settlement, it was a pasture.  We’d planted this pasture and, since it had not previously been a forest and there were no large trees, snags, downed logs, stumps, etc. for wildlife habitat, we created some snags when we thinned this forest.  To help people see these snags, we’d painted an ‘S’ on several snags.] — Step #4

We were truly amazed how much these three and four-year olds took home from their mile-long hike.  We were especially pleased their teachers had followed up with their students.  Their comments in step #3 were especially gratifying.

About a month and a half later, a parent/teacher sent me a note.  Her son was one of those pre-school students and he was still talking about this field trip!
It would have been nice if they had gotten to steps 5 and 6 but that would be quite a lot to ask of a three or four-year old.

Richard Powell is the Public Outreach Forester for Starker Forests, Inc., in Philomath, Oregon.

Environmental Leadership: Making Connections

Environmental Leadership: Making Connections

Lynch2015-3Environmental Leadership: Making Connections

Two service-learning programs within the Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Oregon aim to deepen students’ knowledge of their bioregion through day-long, hands-on field trips.

By Kathryn A. Lynch, Environmental Leadership Program, University of Oregon

C (Dakota)hildren and young adults are often more tuned into the screens in front of them than the landscape surrounding them; when asked which direction is north their inclination is to check their smartphones. In response, the Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Oregon is developing environmental education projects seeking to reconnect children to nature.

The Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) is an interdisciplinary service-learning program housed in the University of Oregon’s Environmental Studies Program. Our mission is to provide undergraduates with an integrative capstone experience, our graduate students with project management experience, while engaging with the community to address real needs.

Since 2001, ELP has developed and implemented 81 projects addressing a wide array of topics. Currently, our projects fall within four primary tracks: environmental education, conservation science, sustainable practices, and community engagement.

The two main goals of our environmental education teams are to: 1) provide UO students the knowledge, skills and confidence to develop and implement place-based, experiential programs; and 2) develop age-appropriate, engaging curricula for local youth, grades K-8, that promotes the stewardship of our natural world.

During winter and spring of 2015, our two environmental education teams focused on the theme of “connections.” The new Restoring Connections team worked in partnership with Mt. Pisgah Arboretum and Adams Elementary to develop and implement a place-based curriculum which included an interactive classroom lesson and a field trip to Mt. Pisgah. The team provided over 200 K-2 students an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of where they live and the importance of conservation and stewardship. The Canopy Connections team worked in partnership with the HJA Experimental Forest and the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute to develop and facilitate an interactive pre-trip lesson and field trip for over 200 middle-schoolers. Students studied forest succession, learned how to use a compass, wrote poetry in field notebooks, and climbed 90 feet into the canopy.

To prepare for their service projects,the undergraduates first enrolled in Environmental Education in Theory & Practice. In this class, they gained a working knowledge of best practices in EE through readings, guest lectures, field trips, and most importantly, their service-learning project in which they developed educational materials for their community partners. While the specifics of the curricula were left up to the teams to determine, all teams were required to: 1) incorporate an interdisciplinary approach, 2) include multicultural perspectives, 3) use experiential, inquiry-based methods, 4) promote civic engagement, and 5) articulate assessment strategies. Their materials were pilot-tested at the end of winter term, and the teams then worked with their community partners to implement their EE programs throughout spring term. Each UO student completed approximately 120 hours of service, which entailed facilitating classroom visits, field trips, and developing supplemental educational materials (e.g. websites, presentations). What follows are descriptions of these projects, written by the team members themselves.


Lynch2015-2Case Study 1 –

Restoring Connections: Unplugging and Reconnecting

By Ashley Adelman, Roslyn Braun, Lucas Holladay, Kiki Kruse, Kerry Sheehan, Zoie Wesenberg, and Alicia Kristen (Project Manager).

As a group of students made their way into the Douglas-fir forest from the oak savanna, a facilitator hushed the group with a “quiet coyote” hand signal. Immediately, everyone hunkered down, peering through the brush as the group tried to get a glimpse of the discovery. A student squealed in delight. The deer was still, its gaze locked onto ours. Having taught our students about the importance of deer ears for hearing predators, they noticed how the deer kept her ears pricked forward, waiting for our next move. The group slowly moved up the hill trying to get a better view. Experiences like this have the ability to enhance the senses like no video game or television show can. Learning about environmental issues at a young age can be overwhelming, but connecting to local nature, students can become more aware of and in tune with the natural world.

In spring 2015, the Environmental Leadership Program launched the Restoring Connections project at Adams Elementary School. Our team of six undergraduates, with the guidance of our graduate project manager, was responsible for the design, creation and implementation of this environmental education curriculum, focusing on Mt. Pisgah Arboretum’s natural ecosystems.

In this pilot year, we focused on kindergarten, first-, and second-grade students. Our goal was to address what Richard Louv calls ‘nature-deficit disorder’ through the creation and implementation of a place-based and experiential educational program. According to Louv, the cultural shift in which many youth now prefer to stay inside interfacing with screens, rather than going outside to play and explore, has resulted in devastating effects on their personal well-being – physically, mentally, and emotionally – in addition to having disastrous repercussions for the environment. How we set about addressing nature-deficit disorder was informed by Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and David Sobel’s work, which outlines a framework for age-appropriate content. Working from this theoretical foundation, we knew we wanted to allow students to explore nature first-hand to help them develop a connection to where they lived, and nurture empathy for the plants and animals that share our bioregion. In addition, the structure of our program was influenced by the Tbilisi Declaration (1977), which states that environmental education should foster awareness, provide knowledge, develop skills, and shape attitudes in students so they can effectively participate in environmental decision making and stewardship. This idea of restoring children’s connection to nature, while they participated in restoring the land, was a central idea of the program.

The structure of our Restoring Connections program consisted of a 45-minute classroom visit on Tuesday, followed by an all-day field trip on Thursday. The classroom lessons focused on introducing key concepts, preparing the children for a successful field trip, and most importantly, instilling a sense of excitement and awe for the ‘magical forest’ they would be visiting. The field trip focused on awakening their senses, building connections and empathy, and finally, on giving students an opportunity to be involved in restoration activities.

During the field trip the kinders built elf and fairy homes out of natural materials in the wildflower garden, engaged their visual senses by finding a rainbow of colors, and engaged their auditory senses by using their ‘deer ears’ as they journeyed along the riverbank.

First-grade students explored the oak savanna, discovering how pollinators and native plants interact in this habitat. Students examined an Oregon white oak up close and played games that honed their observation and plant identification skills. The restoration work focused on creating habitat for native wildflowers by pulling invasive shining geranium, and planting native plants. Through this restoration work, students learned about native and non-native species and the importance of stewardship.

Second-grade students explored the Douglas-fir forest, studying concepts of camouflage and adaptation through role play and the study of animal behavior. Their restoration work was centered around building “habitat hotels” for decomposers found in the Douglas-fir forest.

The restoration work connects classroom learning to real-life experiences. By learning the differences between native and non-native plants, our first-grade students discovered the need to care for native species in Oregon. Gaining knowledge about the role of decomposers in the Douglas-fir forest allowed the second-grade students to understand ecosystem functions. These activities provided an example of the impact that they can have on the environment.

Throughout our ten weeks of teaching, over 200 students had the opportunity to visit and explore Mt. Pisgah. As part of our professional development, we were asked to evaluate what worked and what needed to be changed after each interaction, and then make those changes for the following week. Jenny Laxton, the education program coordinator at Mt. Pisgah, provided us with invaluable feedback to help us improve our program to best serve the needs of the Arboretum and Adams students and staff.

The opportunity to complete service work allowed the elementary students and our ELP team the opportunity to take the knowledge and skills we have gained in the classroom and use them in community action. We gained problem-solving and team management skills along with greater knowledge of best practices within environmental education. We were also encouraged to engage in critical self-reflection to improve our final outcomes.

The long term vision for this project is that starting next year, the Restoring Connectionsteam will work with a single cohort of children, from kinder through fifth-grade.This cohort of children will visit Mt. Pisgah Arboretum each season (fall, winter, spring) giving them multiple opportunities to visit, connect, and participate in restoration work. Each grade level will focus on exploring a different habitat located within the Arboretum, with activities geared toward hands on learning. By giving children an opportunity to be outside, learning in nature, we hope this project will deepen their sense of appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and reach those who may not thrive in a classroom setting. By returning each year, the children will gain an understanding of local natural history that cannot be gained through a single visit alone. By involving them in restoration efforts over time, the children will be able to witness the difference their actions have made on the landscape. Overall, Restoring Connections seeks to cultivate a lasting connection to the land, one that is based on reciprocity and respect.

To learn more about our project, please visit:



Lynch2015-1Case Study 2 –

Canopy Connections: Nurturing Naturalists

By Samantha Bates, Laura Buckmaster, Nicole Hendrix, Forrest Hirsh, Micaela Hyams, Elie Lewis, Amelia Remington, Nick Sloss, Tim Chen (Project Manager).

Six middle-school students sit silently on a trail in an old-growth forest: one observes a newt run over her feet; another notices how moss and lichen create miniature forests; another writes poetry about the nearby sounds of Lookout Creek. Down the trail, students identify giant Douglas-firs, noting the distinct grooved bark in contrast to the smoother bark of the equally impressive western hemlocks. Using newly-honed plant identification skills, students compare two plots to form hypotheses about what stage of ecological succession they are observing. Further along, students put their compass skills to the test, going on a compass scavenger hunt of sorts, receiving a bearing and seeing if they can find the correct specific tree off the trail. Later, they will sit in a circle surrounded by enormous Douglas-fir, ancient Pacific yew, stringy western redcedar, and drooping western hemlock and draw a map of the forest with the creek as their backdrop. Meanwhile, their friends climb 90 feet into the canopy, finding treasures few ever ascend high enough to discover: dangling Lobaria lichen clinging to branches heavy with the plentiful “roses” of small, papery hemlock cones; licorice ferns growing out of decades-old moss carpets that blanket trees that students now observe from above.


Canopy Connections is in its seventh year. This year our team of eight undergraduates (and one graduate project manager), sought to distinguish ourselves by designing our curriculum around the theme “nurturing naturalists.” Drawing from Gardner’s multiple intelligences, our curriculum caters to multiple ways of knowing and different learning styles. All of our lessons focus on building sensory awareness.

The structure of our Canopy Connections program consisted of a 45-minute classroom pre-field trip visit, followed by an all-day field trip at H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River, Oregon. The classroom lessons focused on introducing key concepts and preparing the middle-schoolers for a successful field trip. For the all-day field trip, each class was divided into four groups and rotated through four different stations.

Station 1: Climbing to the Canopy. At this station, students ascend 90 feet into the canopy of an old-growth Douglas-fir tree. Experienced tree climbers from the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute (PTCI) facilitate this activity. Students support one another in their learning about microclimates as they are connected to the ropes one by one and make their way up. While this activity is challenging for some children, the rush of adrenaline often provides them with a hyper sensitivity to their surroundings they might not have appreciated before. Many students leave this activity with a deeper respect for the sheer magnitude and magnificence of a 400-year old Douglas-fir tree.

Station 2: Nature’s Navigators. On the ground, students learned basic map reading and compass skills. Students worked in pairs, and with the help of facilitators, embarked on a compass expedition. Using their compass and species identification cards, they were tasked with locating and identifying four species of trees found in old-growth forests. They later observed the four tree species up close and collaborated to correctly identify them. Students used their new skills and knowledge to create a map of their immediate surroundings.

Station 3: The Life and Layers. At this station, students explored forest succession and disturbance. We introduced the four characteristics of an old-growth forest using the acronym OWLS–old, woody debris, layers, and snags. They then learned to identify several species seen on the forest floor. To paint a picture of how a forest becomes old-growth, we had students read a passage from Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest to each other and then look for these signs as they hiked. Through descriptions of nurse logs and pathogenic fungi, they gained an appreciation for the intricate relationships of the forest and began to consider the significance of observation for scientists and writers alike.

We encouraged students to touch the plants, compare, and describe them to each other in order to create detailed records in their field notebooks. Splitting into two groups, they examined plots located in stands of different aged forests, with the goal of using their new knowledge, observation, and recording skills to determine whether they were looking at the 40-year stand or an old-growth stand.

Station 4: Stop, Sit, Scribble. At this station, students practiced their writing skills, imitating the work done by the writers of the Long Term Ecological Reflections (LTER) project, which is designed to collect stories, poems, and essays for 200 years from 2003 to 2203. After listening to The Web, a poem written at HJA by Alison Hawthorne Deming, students followed the guiding principles of the LTER project and spread out on the forest floor to begin writing a stanza for a collaborative poem. They focused on incorporating sensory observation skills and using descriptive adjectives as do the writings collected for the LTER project.

Lynch2015-4Although concepts of creative writing and poetry are taught in the lesson, students gain much more than an appreciation for adjectives. They learn collaboration and listening skills, while simultaneously absorbing clues from the natural world: the rush of the river, the smell of coolness in the air, the hundreds of plant species surrounding them. Sensory observation and creative writing connects with the theme of “nurturing naturalists” by bridging the gap between humanities and science.

Throughout Canopy Connection’s eight-week program, over 200 hundred students from four different middle schools participated in field trips. During nine days in the field, we totaled 54 hours of teaching with an 8:1 student-teacher ratio and led nine in-class pre-trip lessons. In addition, we worked in partnership with 23 high-school students from a local AP Environmental Literature class. These students helped us in the field, and we shared insights into going to college as well as being effective environmental stewards. Our team compiled our final curriculum and a final report, and developed a website to display our project. We presented our findings at the Undergraduate Research Symposium, a SMILE workshop at HJA, and an ELP final presentation. Our ultimate mission is positive environmental change stemming from an environmentally-literate younger generation. Many teachers and students have already reached out to express how much our field trip meant to them. To learn more about our project, please visit:



Literature Cited

Deming, Alison Hawthorne. 2007. The Web. Orion Magazine, March/April.

Gardner, Howard. 2011. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Louv, Richard. 2006. Last Child in the Woods. Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Norse, Elliott A. 1990. Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest. The Wilderness Society. Island Press: Washington D.C.

Sobel, David. 1996. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. Nature Literacy Series. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.

Tbilisi Declaration. 1977. Summary of goals and guiding principles.

Forest Schools and the Benefits of Unstructured Outdoor Play

Forest Schools and the Benefits of Unstructured Outdoor Play

Forest Schools and the Benefits of Unstructured Outdoor Play

FScedarsongforesthouseBy Deanna Fahey
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio

It is snowing outside and you’re getting your child ready to go to kindergarten.  While other children may be wishing for a snow day so they can play in the snow, yours is excited to go to school!  Why is your child unique?  Your child attends a forest school.  Forest schools and nurseries are popping up around the globe and gaining momentum.  Though these schools have routines that are wide ranging, they all have a common core: allowing children to experience the freedom of playing outdoors as part of their learning.


As a graduate student, parent and nature lover, I questioned why some adults choose to make decisions based on ecological consequences while others do not.  After all, in today’s day and age, we all are aware of the consequences of our modern lives on the environment.  On walks with our daughter, my husband and I spent numerous conversational hours chipping away at adult psyches trying to figure out an answer to this apparent quandary.  There has to be some keystone event, I argued, in a person’s life that generates a concern for their environment as adults.  During my questioning, I came across an answer.  Through interviews, researchers have come to find that a direct, positive experience in nature before the age of 11 promotes a long-term connection to nature.  However, given the state of today’s society, our children spend less and less time outside.  What does that mean for our environmental future?   It was during this time of questioning I was introduced to Erin Kenny, co-founder and lead teacher of Cedarsong Nature School.  My husband had been watching Nightline when he called me in.  There Kenny and parents were discussing the joys of sending their children to a forest school.  I had to know more!


Friedrich Froebel opened the first kindergarten in Germany in 1837.  The core of his curriculum integrated nature and play to provide children ages three to six a place to grow.  Over time Froebel’s curriculum has morphed to become more academic in character and concern for children’s growth has been replaced by concern for preparation for elementary school.  However, parents around the globe are uniting and fighting to bring nature back to their children.  The result of this movement by parents is the reintroduction of forest schools.

Forest schools may fluctuate in their everyday routine but the core value of spending a majority of time engrossed in outdoor play remains the same.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (Ginsburg, 2006), play is essential to the well-being of children.  The varied terrain of nature stimulates imagination, encourages creativity, and builds motor skills.  Undirected play allows children to learn to share, work in groups and negotiate.  Children involved in play face and conquer fears while self-esteem is boosted as obstacles are worked out and overcome.  Play is so important to the overall health and well-being of children it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child (UNICEF).

In order for children to develop a love of nature, appropriate opportunities for interaction need to be provided.  Too often in today’s society children know more about exotic flora and fauna from faraway places but have no idea of the beauty that lies right outside their own door.  If children grow to adulthood with no love for, or worse yet a fear of, nature how can we expect them to become environmentally empathetic adults. According to White and Stoecklin (2008) children need to experience nature on a regular basis in order to develop pro-environmental values.


It was a clear morning as we drove through the forest on Vashon Island in Seattle.  We were on the hunt for the elusive forest school.  The sun glimmered off the dew hanging on the leaves, blinding us at times to the road ahead.  Further and further we drove until at last we reached the end of the road.  Where to from here though?  Ah, just follow the sounds of the laughing children.  We had reached Cedarsong Nature School.  I was about to begin my journey into a school with no walls and where children lead the class instead of the teachers; a world virtually impossible for me to imagine but that I was eager to explore!

When I caught up with the children at Cedarsong, they were in the process of making some very delicious mud pies!  The girls were covered head to foot in mud and they could not have been happier.  They were standing in a circle chatting together over their work and discussing things only known to them.  As I stood aside and watched, Erin Kenny, co-founder of Cedarsong, described to me how the children are the leaders of the day; their interests and observations dictate what will be learned.  As a teacher myself, I questioned the logistics of this system.  How does anything get covered when children decide what to learn?  She told me how a random comment about tripping over a tree root can lead to a discussion on erosion and weather or the purpose of the roots of a tree to photosynthesis. The possibilities are endless!   Changing seasons bring continual opportunities to track and record growth, and discuss hibernation and even death.  New observations can lead to predictions, fallen trees and fungus can stimulate conversation on decomposition which can lead to discussions about habitats and niches.  Teachers, it turns out, can just stand back and observe; it is from their observations that teacher’s take their cues of where to lead.

FSForestSchoolA boy had decided to explore a bit more of the area; Kenny and I followed leaving the girls in safe sight of the teachers.  As we followed the child further into the forest my “inner child” was awakened and I wanted nothing more than to climb the nearest tree or jump into one of the many puddles.  My senses were stimulated by the sounds of the birds and insects calling out their warnings of strangers nearby and I desperately wanted to search out the sources of those warnings calls!  However, I was there to observe the children and not to indulge my own inner child so I turned my attention back to the child we were shadowing.

Further along the path the child had found a tree to climb.  Though Kenny moved a bit closer, she did not flinch or move to stop the boy.  I inquired about fear of accidents given the freedom the children seem to be allotted.  According to Kenny not many children do get hurt— they learn and respect their own limitations.  On the rare occasion one does get hurt, there are emergency protocols that all teachers are familiar with.  Teachers are certified and stay current in first aid and CPR.  Kenny’s experiences with accidents are similar to those from forest schools in Europe.

Marga Keller is the founder of WaKiTa, a forest daycare located in Zurich, Switzerland.  Keller stated, “Experience shows that in forest institutions fewer accidents happen than in mainstream schools.”  She clarifies, explaining that because the teachers consciously learn how to handle risks with the children and help them strengthen their own skills, the children can assess risk situations better.  The children also do not feel the need to rebel against overly restrictive rules or prove their courage because the school actually puts this as part of the program: the teachers offer the children age-appropriate challenges.

FSforest_hideoutBack with the main group, Kenny asked if anyone would like to lead a hike to show me the rest of the forest.  All the children decided to go and we set off together.  As we wandered through the forest, the children impressed me with their knowledge of the local plants and fungi.  I was taken to forts and shelters camouflaged in the trees, the likes of which my own children would have gone crazy for!  As we strolled on, the children dispersed to different areas of the trail and Kenny and I had another opportunity to discuss the school and the children’s role.  “Children challenge themselves all the time in the outdoor setting,” Kenny told me.  “They display great personal pride in their achievements.”

Each day is unique and brings new sources of inquiry and excitement!  Children learn to work together and cooperate through imaginative play.  According to Burdette and Whitaker (2005), when children play outdoors there is more opportunity for problem solving and creative thinking.  The varied terrain and multiple stimuli which nature provides deliver the perfect environment for imagination.

As my time came to an end at Cedarsong, I felt encouraged with all that I had seen.  The possibilities for incorporation of nature into the American education system seemed endless and the benefits for our future generations infinite!

Bringing Back Outdoor Play

Forest schools may seem ideal for the issues I was grappling with, but not all of our schools and children have access to nature in their backyard.  Urban schools are at a distinct disadvantage for this type of schooling; however, there are schools working on solutions which could be sustainable for all urban schools.  For example, Muscota New School, located in New York City, utilizes Inwood Hill Park and Bear Mountain State Park, making the most of the nearby outdoor areas available to them.

According to the California Department of Education (2011), environment-based education employs natural ecosystems as a context for learning. The “environment” may be a river, a forest, a city park, or a garden carved out of an asphalt playground.

It seems any environment can be employed as an area for incorporating outdoor play, opening doors for practical outdoor play solutions.

You cannot turn on the news today without hearing about school funding issues; yet funding concerns can be overcome through partnerships, grants and community volunteer days.  Taft Elementary School in Redwood City, California, partnered with Hidden Villa, a non-profit outdoor education organization to create their school garden program.  CitySprouts, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, partners with public schools to develop school gardens.  Citysprouts also works to educate teachers on the integration of existing curriculum with their gardens.  The Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Grant Program provides grants for large scale projects such as the “design, establishment and maintenance of a native-plant community such as prairie, woodland, wetland, etc. in an educational setting such as an outdoor classroom.”

Modifications select schools are making to outdoor immersion are providing sustainable and worthwhile results.  Our children are gaining access to the outdoors, attaching to nature and initiating positive change in their well-being.


Even though forest schools may not be the catch-all answer I was looking for, they can be a viable solution to our children’s lack of outdoor play and keystone moments.  For those schools without a sizable amount of accessible land, compromises can be made.   Vegetable gardens are being employed to reinforce geometry sills, nutrition, life science and basic math.  An extension can include cultural differences in gardening techniques and vegetable preferences as well as recipes, which of course can be utilized for basic math.  Trees found on school grounds can be used to teach geometry, prediction, microhabitat, and chemistry.  An ecosystem extension can be incorporated by linking with international schools to compare tree data; growth rates, circumference, etc. (sites such as Jane Goodalls –  are perfect for this type of linking).  Logs and larger branches on the ground can be used for agility, microhabitat, decomposition, nutrient recycling, chemistry, prediction and even physics.  Why are branches of similar size but different trees weigh different?  Water sources – even puddles after a rain – can be used for chemistry, prediction, water analysis and physics.  Have you ever wondered about the force of a foot splashing in the water and the correlation to height of the splash?  Cultural stories and knowledge can be shared while observing and studying local plants.  I for one have always wondered about the ability of plants to break rocks as the seeds grow.  Sounds like a perfect inquiry-led question for a physics class.  Ant hills can be an endless source of amusement and knowledge for younger children learning about habitat.  Decomposing leaves on your school grounds can become the perfect place to discuss microhabitat, nutrient recycling and niche.  Of course the simplest solution would be to get rid of the cement playground and replace it with a natural playground, one complete with grass, fallen and living trees and butterfly and vegetable gardens.

In our world today adults are making choices that are counter-intuitive to what is best for our environment.  Without contact with their natural world our modern children will grow up to be less inclined to save the earth than some of us seem to be today.  As adults we need to come together and give our children the access to nature they deserve.  With the constraints of today a feasible solution to this problem is to bring back outdoor play to our school children!


Burdette, H. & Whitaker, R. (2005. Jan.). Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Vol. 159. Retrieved from at University of California – Berkeley

California Department of Education. (2011). School Garden Program Overview ; An overview of the school garden program including its impact on children’s health, nutrition, and academic achievement.   Retrieved from


Ginsburg, K. (2006. May). Testimony of Kenneth Ginsburg, MS, MS Ed, FAAP on Behalf of the American Academy of Pediatricians. Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands and Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans. “No Child Left Inside: Reconnectiong Kids with the Outdoors”.

Keller, M. WaKiTa Outdoor Daycare

Kenny, E. Cedarsong Nature School

Moving Outdoors in Nature Act.  Retrieved from

Muscota New School.

Rymer, B. (2009. December). Taft Elementary School’s Garden Program; A Case Study.  Retrieved from

The Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Grant Program.

White, R. & Stoecklin, V. (2008). Nurturing Children’s Biophilia: Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education for Young Children. White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group


Using litter-fall to study carbon cycling

Using litter-fall to study carbon cycling


The LitTER Project: A field method for using litter-fall to study carbon cycling

by Lee Cain & Nick Baisley
Astoria High School Science Department

During a NASA funded Teacher-Researcher Partnership program focused on bringing Global Warming and Climate Change into the classroom, a long-term ecological study was created to get students into the field to research leaf litter fall as it relates to the carbon cycle.

Through photosynthesis, carbon in the atmosphere is converted into plant matter, which then will fall to the ground as it continues to be recycled in the carbon cycle. Our investigation is designed to answer the following question: “What is the rate at which carbon as leaf litter moves from a coniferous forest canopy to the forest floor (C-flux as Mg/ha/yr)?” A secondary question we are hoping to answer with this study is: “How does the rate of C-flux relate to coniferous age and management techniques?”

For comparison we selected one 60+ yr. old stand, a 30-50 yr. old recently thinned stand, and a young closed-canopy regenerating clearcut (15-20 yrs. old). In each stand we laid out two parallel transects, each with nine litter traps (plots) spaced 10 meters apart. Along each transect we also placed a HOBO temperature and light data logger.

We are collecting, drying, sorting, and finding the mass of leaf litter, and other sources of carbon, that have fallen into the traps. With only one fully completed set of data, we have yet to begin to answer the key questions of this study. We foresee a period of at least five years before we gather a significant data base. The purpose of this preliminary year was to choose our sites, establish transects, and work through any logistical or methodological challenges that present themselves. In the fall, students will begin taking regular field trips to the sites in order to collect and analyze the data.


Big forests, big trees. Steep slopes, moss, and mycorrhizal strands of hyphae exposed under sliding boots. Climb up the slope, scramble down the log, lay the tape out, and spread the calipers. Then back up the slope again over the crisscrossed giant pick-up sticks to get the next measurement.

Later, taking a break for lunch, smashing microscopic biting midges against our sweaty arms, we have the chance to gaze upwards at the giant columns and wonder about what each tree has witnessed in its four or five centuries of existence. Then lunch is over, and it’s time to lay the tape out again.

This goes on day after day. Two science teachers from Astoria High School, we were in the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Mountains. This forest is part of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network, created by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1980 to conduct research on ecological issues that can last decades and span huge geographical areas. We were working with Dr. Mark Harmon of Oregon State University’s College of Forestry to take follow-up carbon storage measurements on forest research stands that had not been measured since the ‘70s and ‘80s.

In the following week in the computer lab, we take apart the measurements and put them back together again. On graphs, the data slowly begins to crystallize in our minds. We begin to realize that the carbon cycle is not working in the same time-frame as our short lives. It takes time for change to happen. Perhaps much more time than we have to repair the damage that we have done in a relative blink of an eye.

We now notice forests differently. We see logs in a way we did not before. Or rather, we see their absence. Replanted and managed forests appear to be empty – something is just missing. It is not just a sense of something missing – one can visibly notice the absence. No giant pick-up sticks lying crisscross on the forest floor. Such a void of stored carbon.

Back in the classroom, our challenge was to get students to see the actual carbon cycle as we have, and not just as an abstract diagram in a textbook. Then they might just be able to understand their own role in the cycle. We knew that time would be the enemy, because we never seem to have enough of it. But if we can get them to see the carbon falling, even one leaf at a time, then we will have begun the process. So we came up with the “LitTER Project,” a long-term ecological study (9th grade Integrated Science) of the movement of carbon from the forest canopy to the forest floor as falling leaves (litterfall). We realized it might take 5 years or more before we acquire any really significant database, but hoped that the process of getting kids to actually handle the litterfall would set into motion a greater awareness of the carbon cycle.
Our key investigative question was, “What is the rate at which carbon as leaf litter moves from a coniferous forest canopy to the forest floor (C-flux as Mg/ha/yr)?”

A secondary investigative question was, _“How does the rate of C-flux relate to coniferous age and management techniques?”


Litterfall Traps — Three sites were selected within the Astoria area to give a wide range of forest ages and management approaches, yet also to be close enough to the high school to be practically accessible. For comparison we selected one 60+ yr. old stand, a 30-50 yr. old recently thinned stand, and a young closed-canopy regenerating clearcut (15-20 yrs. old).


At each site, two transects were laid out parallel, 20 m apart. All transects were set to have a 360 N orientation to be consistent in terms of solar angle of incidence. Nine litterfall traps (plots) were spaced along each transect at 10 meter plot intervals.

Each litterfall trap consisted of a black plastic rectangular floral tray (43 cm by 43 cm ~0.2 m2) lined with window screen to keep all litterfall from passing through the grid of the floral tray. Two wire surveyor flags were used to anchor through the trap into the forest floor and hold the mesh in place. The fluorescent flags helped to aid finding the traps on later visits. In addition, a surveyor’s ribbon with plot identification was tied to a nearby branch. Each plot was cleared of branches for 1 meter above the center of the trap.


A canopy cover photograph was taken by standing directly over the trap and shooting straight up. A HOBO temperature and light data logger was also placed next to each transect. This photograph can be digitized for percent cover using Photoshop or a similar software. Percent cover can then be used to draw relationships with carbon flux rates.

Student Visits — Students were bussed to the study sites and allowed about 1.5 hours to collect the first samples from the traps. Each team of 2-3 students was responsible for collecting the samples from one plot, and re-setting the trap to level and clearing the forest floor to level, flagging the branch above the plot and taking the canopy cover photograph.


Processing Samples — Litter from the traps was placed into black plastic bags labeled with masking tape and trap information. The empty trap was returned to exactly the same position until the next collection date. The bags were tied shut and taken back to the lab, where they were then spread out to dry for two weeks at an average temperature of 25 C. In teams, students then sorted and weighed the litter samples to the nearest 0.1 grams (Table 1) in the following categories: needles, broadleaves, total leaf, woody matter, reproductive (seeds, flowers, etc.), total plant, mineral matter, and animal (bug parts).






Table 1 – Teams of students were given single data tables to initially record the sorted raw weights:


Table 2 – Excel was used to summarize the raw data:


Figure 1 – Graph of summarized results of the first month of data collection:


While only one data collection had been completed at the time of publishing, the tables and figures in the previous section should give an idea of how we have arranged the data.

The most obvious result in the data, though it is early yet, is that there are apparently significant differences between study sites in terms of total leaf mass compared to woody matter. Over time, these differences should develop into differences in the rate of carbon flux in the three different systems. This should not be surprising, yet is exactly these sorts of differences that students will likely not be able to see prior to participating in a LitTER project. Because there is only one sample event so far, we have not yet constructed picture of the carbon flux as litterfall over time. What is not known at this time if these differences maintain their relative distances or if it equalizes over time.

LiTER-6While we are looking forward to pulling out these and other relationships from the data, we are mostly excited by the potential of this project as a tool to get students involved in science inquiry. Students become highly engaged during the data collection and processing. There are also many directions that we can go with the student learning about climate change with this project as a base.

There are still a few areas in the project protocol that we need to revise. Originally, the data collection was planned as a monthly activity that rotated between six Integrated Science classes throughout the school year. But it immediately became apparent that this didn’t work with the busy pace of school and the unforeseen effect of weather (windstorms, rain, snow days).

It is also a major organizational effort to get even one class of student scientists out to the nearest of the sites, let alone bussing six different classes to all of them. To adjust to this, we are now planning on making the data collection quarterly. Three times throughout the year, we teachers will team to collect the data (about 2 hours per site). This approach may eventually fall into the form of a senior project, to be carried out by a capable science-minded individual or group of individuals. Our 9th grade students will now experience the field data collection just once per year, on a fall day devoted to the project. While this is not as ideal as more frequent field trips, we feel that this is a balance we have to make to accommodate the public school setting of our project. At least this way the students have that field experience to help them to better relate when participating in the multiple data analysis events in the laboratory.

Muller-Landau, H.C. and S.J. Wright. (2010) Litterfall Monitoring Protocol, March 2010 version.
F.S. Peterson, J. Sexton, K. Lajtha. (2013) Scaling litter fall in complex terrain: A study from the western Cascades Range, Oregon. Forest Ecology and Management 306, 118-127 Online publication date: 1-Oct-2013.

This article was submitted for ED 901 – Researcher Teacher Partnerships: Making global climate change relevant in the classroom Spring 2014 ; Oregon State University & Oregon Natural Resources Education Program (ONREP)