Phenology Wheels: Earth Observation Where You Live
By Anne Forbes, Partners in Place, LLC
This article originally appeared in Earthzine – http://earthzine.org/
aking a habit of Earth observation where you live is a fun and fundamental way to practice Earth stewardship. It is often our own observations close to home that keep us inspired to learn more and allow us to remain steady advocates for solutions to today’s daunting problems. Earth observation done whole-heartedly becomes skilled Earth awareness that leads to profound relationships with the plants, animals, and seasonal cycles surrounding us in real time, whether we live in the city, suburbs, or countryside.
Courtesy Anne Forbes.
One way to track Earth observations is an activity called Phenology Wheels, suitable for individuals, families, classrooms, youth programs, and workshops for people of all ages. Phenology is a term that refers to the observation of the life cycles and habits of plants and animals as they respond to the seasons, weather, and climate. A Phenology Wheel is a circular journal or calendar that encourages a routine of Earth observation where you live. Single observations of what is happening in the lives of plants and animals made over time begin to tell a compelling story – your story – about the place on our living planet that you call home.
Why a circle? We usually think of the passing of time as linear, with one event following another in sequence by day, by month, by year. Placing the same events in a circular journal, or wheel shape, helps us discover new patterns (or rediscover known ones). We can use the Phenology Wheel to communicate about what is really important or interesting to us.
Here’s the General Idea
A Phenology Wheel is made up of three rings in a circle, like a target. To become a Wheel-keeper, you select a home place, such as a garden, a “sit spot,” schoolyard, watershed, or landscape that will be represented by a map or image in the center ring, the bull’s eye. Next, you mark units of time – such as the months and seasons of a year, hours of a day, or phases of a lunar month – around the outside ring, like the numbers on the face of a clock. Then, as you make specific observations of what is going on in the lives of plants and animals and the flow of seasons, you record them within the middle ring using words, phrases, images, or a combination.
Here’s How To Get Started
Because the wheel is round, you can begin a Phenology Wheel for Earth observation at any time of year.
Although you can pick among different time scales for the outer ring, let’s begin here with a year of seasons and months.
Courtesy Anne Forbes.
1. Draw a set of nested circles on a large piece of paper. You can do this by tracing around large plates or pizza pans, by using an artist’s compass or by making your own compass out of a pencil, pin, and string. You may also purchase a kit of print Wheels or a set of digital PDF Wheels online.
2. If you are making your own Wheel, write the names of the seasons and months on the outer rings.
3. Select an image for the center to represent the place or theme you have selected and to anchor your practice of observation in time and space.
Maps for the Center: If you choose a map, will it be geographically accurate or symbolic? Will it be traced or cut and pasted from an existing map, or will it be a map of your own creation?
Tip: Use a web-based mapping system such as Google Maps to print a map and use it to trace selected features as a base map for your Wheel.
A Centering Image: If you choose an image other than a map, will you create your own image or use one that you find already in print material? Will you use a photo, make a collage, or choose a found object, like a leaf or feather?
Tip: Children often enjoy a picture of themselves at their “sit spot” or other place they have chosen to track their observations.
4. Establish a Routine: Observe → Investigate and Reflect → Record
OBSERVE: What do I notice in this moment? What is extraordinary about seemingly ordinary things? What surprises me as unexpected or dramatic?
INVESTIGATE: What more do I want to know about what I observe? What questions will I seek to answer through my own continued observation? What information will I search for in books or from mentors or websites?
REFLECT: What does my observation mean to me? How is it changing me? How does it help me explore my values and beliefs?
RECORD: A routine of frequent observation provides the raw material to transform your blank Wheel into a circular journal as you record images, symbols, or words as you observe the passing of the seasons in your home place.
Tip: An interactive diagram of this process can be found under the Observe & Record tab here.
5. Share and Celebrate: Use your Wheel to report or tell stories about what you learn from and value about Earth observation in your home place.
Like a wheel on a cart, time turns around the hub of your home place;
the metaphor is a journey taken through a day, a month, a year,
or a lifetime of curiosity and appreciation.
Of course, you don’t have to keep a journal to explore and appreciate your home place on earth and the home place in your heart. What are the dimensions of your home place in this moment? What marks of time’s passing do you observe? The more playful you are with these questions, the more you may feel a part of your home place and committed to co-creating its well-being with others in your community.
Courtesy The Yahara Watershed Journal.
Example #1: The Yahara Watershed Wheel
About twelve years ago, a group of like-minded friends gathered by my fireside to reflect upon what it means to live in this place we call home in Dane County, Wisconsin, USA. We chose to think of the Yahara Watershed as our common home place, and the series of seasonal events that occur in a typical year as the time scale to track. We put a map of the watershed in the center of a large Wheel of the Year, with units of time going around the outside rim, much like a clock, but using seasons and months instead of hours. We then went around our own circle, each speaking of the defining moments in the natural world and in the lives of people enjoying it throughout the months of a typical year. The artist among us sketched the images onto the Yahara Watershed Wheel that you see here. The detail in the enlarged image represents the unique happenings in March and April: pasque flowers in bloom, the return of redwing blackbirds and sandhill cranes, woodcock mating dances, first dandelions, and spring peepers in chorus.
Courtesy Anne Forbes.
Example #2: Poems of Place
In reporting on this Wheel filled with seasonal poems by 4th and 5th graders about the large school woods, just outside an elementary school “backdoor” in Cambridge, Wisconsin, teacher Georgia Gomez-Ibanez writes, “Because the woods is so accessible, the children spend quite a lot of time there developing a deep sense of place, including keen observational skills and a heightened imagination, all enhanced by the affection they have gained by years of exploring, learning and stewardship.” This selection of student poems illustrates how Phenology Wheels can be used to enhance language arts as well as science curriculum.
Example #3: Local Biodiversity
In another example from Cambridge Elementary School in Wisconsin, teacher Georgia Gomez-Ibanez reports that a classroom studied the biodiversity of the area where they live. Each student picked a different animal or plant from their adjacent woods or prairie for the center of an 11-inch Wheel and then did research to tell the full story of the life cycle in words. The example here shows the work of one student who studied the Jack-in-the-Pulpit wildflower.
The next step would be for the students to combine their information for single species onto one large 32-inch Wheel and use it to explore the dynamics of the ecosystem that appear through food webs, habitat use, seed dispersal mechanisms, and so on.
Frequently Asked Questions
Courtesy Anne Forbes.
1. Where do I get more information?
If you are ready to start a Phenology Wheel for yourself, family, classroom or youth program, or any other interest group:
• Visit the Wheels of Time and Place website for instructions, resources, and a gallery of examples.
• Download a curriculum for youth developed in partnership with Georgia Gomez-Ibanez, an elementary school teacher, and Cheryl Bauer-Armstrong, Earth Partnership for Schools, UW-Madison Arboretum.
2. Where do I order pre-made Wheels?
Order the blank Wheel templates as a digital download of PDF files or as a complete toolkit, Wheels of Time and Place: Journals for the Cycles and Seasons of Life. The latter includes a set of print Wheels in 11-inch and 24-inch sizes, a code to download the PDF files, and an instruction booklet – all in a recycled chipboard carrying case.
3. What size should my Wheels be?
Some people prefer 11-inch Wheels because they are compact, portable, and can be easily duplicated in a copy machine on 11 x 17-inch paper. You can trim them down to 11-inch square if you would like.
When people share the 24-inch Wheels, their faces often light up with excitement. This size, or larger, works well if you have a large clip board or a place to keep it posted for frequent use or when people are working on one Wheel in a group.
Of course, if you make your Wheels by hand, you can make them any size you like. If you purchase the PDF files, you can enlarge them up to 32-36 inches at a copy or blueprint shop.
4. What if I’m already a journal-keeper?
Some people who already keep a written journal use the Wheels to review their journals periodically and pull out observations to further explore and put on a Wheel. It’s amazing what patterns and stories can emerge.
5. Can the Wheels be created from databases?
Frank Nelson of the Missouri Department of Conservation has used wheels called Ring Maps, A Useful Way to Visualize Temporal Data to show trends and reveal patterns in a complex set of data.
Anne Forbes of Partners in Place, LLC is an ecologist who seeks to integrate her scientific and spiritual ways of knowing. For over 35 years, she worked on biodiversity policy as a natural resource manager and supported environmental and community collaborations as a facilitator and consultant. Her years of spiritual practice in varied traditions, most recently the Bon Buddhist tradition of Tibet, inspire her commitment to engaged action on behalf of present and future generations. She failed her first attempt at retirement and instead created the Wheels of Time and Place: Journals for the Cycles and Seasons of Life.
Middle School Students Use Historic Snowpack Data to Gain Inquiry, Graphing and Analysis Experience
by Joe Cameron
Beaverton Middle School teacher
NRCS Oregon hydrologists Melissa Webb and Julie Koeberle measure snow on Mt. Hood. Courtesy of USDA.
What do you get when you mix researchers, teachers, authentic science opportunities and a group of GREAT people? You get three summers of intense work, reinvigorated teachers, new ideas for the classroom and lots of fun!
For the last three summers I was lucky enough to be involved in the Oregon Natural Resource Education Program’s (ONREP) Climate Change Institute where teachers are matched with researchers to bridge the gap between the classroom and field research. The last two years I worked with Oregon State University’s Dr. Anne Nolin and Travis Roth examining snow pack changes in the McKenzie River Watershed. Investigating snow collection sites and collecting data led to discussions on how best to get students involved in authentic research and science inquiry investigations.
Handout for activity below.
One of my goals for the year was to get my students involved in authentic data collection and to gain more experience and practice in graphing. From this, SWEet! was born. SWEet is an activity that engages students in using historic snow data to investigate the SWE, or Snow Water Equivalent, and the changes taking place in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Students graph and analyze data from SNOTEL sites and compare their findings with others in class to make predictions about future snowpack. In extension activities students choose their own SNOTEL sites in the Western U.S. and monitor snow data monthly throughout the snow year. This type of activity will in turn introduce students to long-term ecological studies in progress and support them to begin studies of their own.
In doing this activity with my students we first investigated their particular sites. I found this helped them personalize the data and they were very involved, especially using this “local” data. Then using their data they were able to create comparative line graphs and look for trends in the data, even with a complex and varied data set. These trends were then used to hypothesize possible effects of changes in the snowpack to their world and the economy and ecosystems found in Oregon.
SWEet! Oregon’s Snowpack and Water Supply
Author: Joe Cameron
Time: 50+ minutes
Grade Level: 6-12
SNOTEL-The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) operates and maintains an automated system (SNOwpack TELemetry or SNOTEL) designed to collect snowpack and related climatic data in the Western United States and Alaska in order to develop accurate and reliable water supply forecasts. For over 30 years, data on snow depth and SWE (Snow Water Equivalent) have been collected from SNOTEL sites throughout the western US. This activity will use yearly SWE data from three SNOTEL sites in Oregon to look for changes and relate our snowpack to Oregon’s economy and environment.
Familiarize students with Snow Water Equivalent (SWE), which is the amount of water contained in the snowpack. A simple reference for background information is http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/or/snow/?cid=nrcs142p2_046155. Also, you can do a simple class demonstration by taking a 500ml beaker of snow (or blended ice) and melting it using a hot plate. I have students predict how much water will remain after the ‘snow’ is melted. Then, we calculate the percent water in the snow to give them an example of one way to analyze this type of data.
After getting the students comfortable with SWE, you can give them the SWEet! Oregon’s Snowpack and Water Supply activity page. When I led this activity, we read through the introduction as a class and then directed the students to graph the data provided, make sense of their plot, compare their results with others in class and then draw conclusions. This lesson leads to discussions of our changing climate and possible changes in store for the people, plants and animals of Oregon.
Students will access long term ecological data.
Students will graph SWE data.
Students will compare their data with data from their classmates.
Students will identify possible effects of a decrease in snowpack.
SWE-Snow Water Equivalent; the amount of water found in snow.
SNOTEL-automated system that records snow depth and related data in the western United States
Trend-a general direction that something is changing
Snowpack-the amount of snow that is found on the ground in the mountains; usually measured at specific sites.
Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)
MS-ESS2-5. Collect data to provide evidence for how the motions and complex interactions of air masses results in changes in weather.
MS-ESS3-5. Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.
Oregon Science Standards
Scientific Inquiry: Scientific inquiry is the investigation of the natural world based on observations and science principles that includes proposing questions or hypotheses, designing procedures for questioning, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting multiple forms of accurate and relevant data to produce justifiable evidence-based explanations.
Interaction and Change: The related parts within a system interact and change.
6.2E.1 Explain the water cycle and the relationship to landforms and weather.
7.2E.2 Describe the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, how it has changed over time, and implications for the future.
7.2E.3 Evaluate natural processes and human activities that affect global environmental change and suggest and evaluate possible solutions to problems.
8.2E.3 Explain the causes of patterns of atmospheric and oceanic movement and the effects on weather and climate.
8.2E.4 Analyze evidence for geologic, climatic, environmental, and life form changes over time.
1 500 ml beaker
1 50-100 ml graduated cylinder snow OR chopped/blended ice
1 hot plate
Copies of SWEet! Oregon’s Snowpack and Water Supply activity page
Optional: colored pencils/pens
1. Give students the SWEet! Activity page.
2. As a class, read and review all directions.
3. Students may choose 1, 2, or 3 sets of data to graph. This option allows the activity to be modified to meet the individual students’ abilities. Also, students can create graphs that can be compared to multiple data sets.
4. Students graph the data in a line graph.
5. Students analyze the data. This part can be completed through drawing a trend line(s) on the graph, calculating averages, adding totals and/or comparing multiple data sets looking for similarities and differences. Note: having the students do their graphing using Excel spreadsheets is an option that is not always available in our school but from which the students would benefit.
6. Relate the observed trends in snowpack to possible effects in Oregon. Who/What will be affected? How will/might they be affected?
7. Students pose one other question OR concern they have after looking at their graphs and trends for possible additional exploration.
1-Related current event articles from Science Daily:
Warming Climate Is Affecting Cascades Snowpack In Pacific Northwest
Found at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090512153335.htm
Global Warming to Cut Snow Water Storage 56 Percent in Oregon Watershed
Found at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130726092431.htm
2-Students can access current snow year data online. They go to SNOTEL website, choose a specific site and collect daily, weekly or monthly data for this site throughout the winter months (the snow year stretches from November to March). Students can also access historic data going back to the late 1970’s and early 1980’s for their sites.
References Science expertise was provided by the following Oregon State University Faculty: Dr. Anne Nolin – Professor and Travis Roth-Doctoral Student in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. Data are from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) SNOTEL website at: http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov
Acknowledgements These lessons were created using information learned in the Oregon Natural Resource Education Program’s Researcher Teacher Partnerships: Making Global Climate Change Relevant in the Classroom project. This project was supported by a NASA Innovations in Climate Education award (NNXI0AT82A).
Thanks to Dr. Kari O’Connell with the Oregon Natural Resources Education Program at Oregon State University and Dr. Patricia Morrell in the College of Education at University of Portland for their thoughtful review of this article.
Joe Cameron is a teacher at Beaverton Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The following activities were submitted by K-12 teachers from around the Pacific Northwest who have participated in watershed education programs in their classrooms. The majority of these teachers were involved in the following coordinated watershed education programs: the Yakima Basin Environmental Education Program, the Bainridge Island Watershed Watch Program, the Nisqually River Education Project, the Budd/Deschutes Project GREEN, and the Lower Hood Canal Watershed Education Network. Each activity lists the teacher’s name and school. Activities were compiled by Karen Clark.
Science and Math: Butterfly Math
Social Studies: My Personal Symbol
Language Arts: Pond Journal
Fine Art: Wetland Animal Hats
Science: How Do Other Animals Deal with Garbage?
Science: Salmon Life Cycle
Science: Is Trash Really for the Birds?
Social Studies: Cultural Taboos
Language Arts: Pen Pals
Fine Arts: Salmon Mobile
Science: What Does Acid Rain Do to Aquatic Animals?
Science: Nature’s Scavenger Hunt
Social Studies: Clean a Stream
Fine Arts/Science: Shape a Watershed
Science: Mapping a Watershed
Science: Stepping Into Others’ Shoes
Science: Piecing Together Your Watershed
Social Studies: Regulatory Agencies
Social Studies: Selecting an Issue to Address
Language Arts: My Life’s Journey
Language Arts: Observation
Language Arts/Fine Arts: Collage
“Your class sure looked happy,” one of my colleagues remarked last week. And I agreed! They were very happy.
When the sun reappeared after a cold spell, I took my Nature Connections students outside for an activity that I was sure would be fun for them.
I’m a firm believer in fun in the learning process. And I’m not alone. Brain research has proven that students learn better when the lesson is fun and enjoyable. Not only does fun promote learning and long-term memory, it also increases dopamine and endorphins in the brain—the “feel-good” neurochemicals.
To be clear, fun doesn’t mean relaxing or goofing off. “Fun means engagement, doing and learning what has meaning and purpose, and it means challenge.” (Daniel Pink, author of Drive).
Renowned psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser states: “There are four psychological needs that we are individually driven to satisfy: the need to belong (sense of community), the need for power (control over ourselves and our environment), the need for freedom (lack of restrictions), and the need for fun (pleasure and enjoyment). These are things that we need in our lives almost as badly as food and shelter.”
As teachers, we can help satisfy these needs for our students through the way we structure our classrooms and our lessons. I focused on FUN last week. Below are some fun ideas you might like to incorporate into your classroom.
Inside: Fun and Unusual Animals
Kids love animals, and they’re a source for so many “fun facts.” Especially when the animals themselves are really unusual. There’s Baribusa in My Bathtub: Facts and Fancy About Curious Creatures by Maxine Rose Schur is full of humorous rhymes and magical illustrations that illuminate the lives of little-known animals.
There’s a loris in your chorus? He’s quite a singer! Care to play bingo with a dingo? Watch out, he’s a sharp one. A babirusa in your bathtub? Better leave him there – he loves water!) Witty, lively poems makes learning about these unsung animals fun—and fun to imitate by writing similar poems about well-known animals.
Outside: Creating Blobsters
A Blobster is an imaginary creature that is made of clay and natural items. The picture shown here is a Blobster I made as a sample for my students.
Here are the steps I used in my lesson:
- Because we had been focusing on recycling in the classroom, I began this lesson discussing natural objects that can be recycled.
- I showed my sample Blobster and asked students to identify the natural objects I used to create it. We then made a list of some of the natural objects found on our playground that could be recycled to create a Blobster.
- I gave each student a small paper bag and took them outside. They had about 10 minutes to collect natural items.
The following steps may be done inside, but my students had fun creating their Blobsters outside:
- We gathered at picnic tables on the playground, and I gave each student a “blob” of clay. (I used about 1/2 pound per student. You can use modeling clay, but I chose to use clay that would air-dry because I wanted the Blobsters to harden. It was also much less expensive than modeling clay.)
- Students had 25 minutes to create their Blobster. I reminded them to firmly push the natural items into the clay, because the clay would shrink as it dried. They discovered that some items were much more difficult to adhere to the clay than others.
- I knew some would finish in a hurry, so I had enough clay for those students to create a second Blobster—a “Blobster Buddy.”
- I had several shallow boxes on hand, and students put their Blobsters in the boxes to transport back inside.
- A few days later, when the Blobsters were completely dry, we had a Blobster Display and students admired the work of others. I ended the Blobster activity with a science/writing project about the four basic needs of all animals, which is described under More Facts and Fun with Animals.
Note: Although one side of the school still had some snow on the ground, the other side was in the sun, and kids found an abundance of dried leaves, bark, twigs, pine cones, dried seeds, and stems to use.
More Facts and Fun with Animals
All animals have four basic needs: food, water, shelter, and safety. Use the pdf Wildlife All Around Us, to introduce these needs to your students. Once they understand the terminology, have them fold a piece of white paper into 4 quadrants, labeling each quadrant with one of the basic needs. With words and/or pictures, have them show how their Blobster meets its basic needs. On the back of the paper (or on a fresh sheet), have them do the same thing for an actual animal.
Have students create a story about one of the animals found in Nature’s Patchwork Quilt: Understanding Habitats by Mary Miche. Then have them weave the four basic needs into their story in an interesting way.
David Rice, in his book Do Animals Have Feelings Too?, has collected true stories of animal behavior that is not only captivating, but also thought-provoking.
Photo sources: Dawn Publications, Carol Malnor, Brad Montgomery, Colleen Webb
ne of my favorite nature quotations comes from the Japanese conservationist Tanaka Shozu who said, “The question of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”
I wanted to touch the hearts of my middle school students with the beauty of nature as well as inspire them to take care of the local environment. I found the perfect spot for a nature experience less than an hour away from our school campus in the Sierra Nevada. (more…)