Where do tomatoes come from?

April 17th, 2012

This week is National Environmental Education Week and we invited author and educator Herb Broda to talk about why it’s important for children to experience the “real thing” when it comes to nature, instead of watching it on a YouTube video. To honor National Environmental Education Week, we have assembled a special package of three books that give you practical, classroom-ready ideas to bring the outdoors into your classroom and let your students experience nature first-hand. The package includes two of Broda’s books: Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors, as well as Childhood and Nature by David Sobel.

Citizen Science: A Powerful Teaching Tool

I heard an interesting story a few days ago. A teacher-friend of mine had her 8th grade students raise tomato plants from seed and then transplant them into the school garden. To build enthusiasm, she explained that the crop would then provide some food to be served in the cafeteria. One student was appalled, however. “ Who would want to eat those  plants!” It quickly became obvious that the student didn’t realize that tomatoes grew on plants—she thought that the entire plant would be served for lunch.

Although the story brings a smile, hopefully it is not a typical scenario.  It does underscore, however, the urgency and value of getting students involved with “real environmental learning”—handling the materials that are a part of our natural world. My friend’s student will now remember that tomatoes in the grocery store come from plants like the ones she planted!

With our incredibly easy access to media-rich websites, YouTube videos, interactive learning games, etc. we sometimes let “technomedia” trump real-life environmental experiences.

Environmental Education Week is a great time to consider incorporating Citizen Science into your teaching. It can provide a beautiful blending of hands-on environmental learning with technology.  According to Citizen Science Central at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, citizen science involves “projects in which volunteers partner with scientists to answer real world questions”.  In a K-12 context, the volunteers are our students who partner with scientists via dozens of websites devoted to exploring specific scientific questions.

Citizen science is part of a broad concept called Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR). Included under this banner could be everything from playground temperature recording activities by elementary school students, to sophisticated sky observations made by amateur astronomers. The unifying factor, however, is the partnering with professional scientists to intentionally gather data to focus on a question.

Citizen science projects are not new. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count has been around for over 100 years and is a classic example of utilizing citizen participation to gather information over a huge geographic area. Gathering data on the scale of the Audubon Bird Count would be impossible without citizen volunteers.

If you are looking for a handy listing of a variety of citizen science projects, there are two sources that I think are especially good. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a central place to find descriptions of dozens of citizen science projects. The site allows new projects to add information, making the site a constantly expanding resource. Although the site does not claim to provide a complete list of citizen science projects, it is an excellent starting point for teachers  curious to see if there might be a project that aligns with the local curriculum.

A second great citizen science project locator is “Scistarter: Science we can do together”. 

This wonderful site provides the ability to pick an activity (e.g. at school, at home, at the beach in the car, etc.)  or a topic (e.g. animals, food, insects, etc.). The site features a project of the day, newsletter and a blog.

For each project listed, Scistarter gives a very practical one page overview of the project, plus a sidebar that provides at-a-glance information about participation fees (if any), other expenses, location restrictions, indoor or outdoor activity, appropriate grade range, and any special gear or equipment needed. This handy overview can save valuable time by allowing you to narrow down very quickly to the project you wish to explore in more depth.

One of my favorite citizen science projects is the Journey North Tulip Test Gardens Project. The tulip project is just one of many programs available at the Journey North website.

Following easy instructions from Journey North, students plant a specific variety of tulip in the fall. They then go to the project website and log the zip code of their community. A symbol appears on a map of North America that shows their exact location. As spring approaches, students check the tulip garden for signs of emerging plants. When plants are detected, students return to the website and a new icon appears representing plant emergence at their school. When tulips are in bloom, students make a final data entry and a third icon symbolizes the blooming tulips.

As hundreds of classrooms across North America track the emergence and blooming of tulips, students can check weekly to see how spring moves across the continent. The website also provides animation so students can replay the week-by-week progression. The Tulip Garden Study is an elegant example of an engaging citizen science project that promotes interest in nature throughout much of the school year.

I continue to be both amazed and gratified at the enthusiasm  generated when children take part in scientific studies connected with other schools and real scientists.  As one student said. “This isn’t textbook stuff—it’s the real thing!”.

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