Plant Phenophases and Citizen Science

aspens color the hillside during the Colorado autumn
Golden aspens color the hillside during autumn in Colorado. Photo ©

It’s one day after the autumnal equinox and rather chilly here along the Rocky Mountain Front Range. The aspens in the mountains are a blaze of yellow, and the other day I saw the first leaves turning color down at this elevation. We see these yellow, orange, and red colors in the fall leaves as trees shut down in preparation for winter. The shorter daylengths cause trees to stop producing chlorophyll, so that anthocyanins (red pigments) and carotenoids (yellow and orange pigments) become visible.

Changes in leaf color are an example of a phenological change. Phenology is the study of the timing of life cycle events in plants and animals—budburst, flowering, animal migration, and other events. Farmers have long been aware of how phenological observations relate to agricultural production, but more recently the observations have found increasing use in science, particularly for tracking the effects of climate variability and change.

Phenological observations provide a great opportunity for citizen science. Citizen science projects allow anyone willing to do some observing to report their findings and contribute to scientific analysis and research. One of my goals is to share these opportunities with you, when possible, and Project Budburst is a great one. It’s simple to participate: take a look around, and if you have kids, encourage them to look with you. Watch for seeds ripening, leaf color change, leaf drop, and other phenological events documented on the website, and login and report your observations. This important citizen science project has a goal of recording 5,000 phenophase observations this fall. You can help them get there, and do some learning and sharing about science all while enjoying the spectacular fall colors!

Our Private Universes

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to teach the basics of energy balance, seasons, and atmospheric & ocean circulation to a group of non-scientist coworkers. Though I was directed specifically to “make sure they understand” the seasons part, I felt a little odd about presenting info the audience probably already knew. After all, shouldn’t we all have learned that in 6th grade science class, or at least in high school?

Apparently not, at least according to “A Private Universe”, a 1989 video in which graduates at Harvard University are asked this question. Over 90 percent of them are unable to give a correct answer. It’s an illuminating piece of work and still referenced all these years later. [To me, it begs the question, where is the update? Seriously, if you are aware of such a product, please let me know.]

The bottom line of “A Private Universe” is that traditional instructional methods don’t really help students learn the concepts, because these methods cannot overcome the misconceptions students already possess. The video makes a compelling argument for inquiry-based learning and giving students the opportunity to explore and seek out the correct answers. In the misconception about seasons depending on Earth’s distance from the Sun rather than Earth’s tilt: if the Earth-Sun distance was the answer, why wouldn’t the Northern and Southern Hemispheres experience summer at the same time? How would you explain the difference in the hours of daylight between summer and winter?

For some people, I suppose these aren’t nagging topics requiring explanation. They are merely “things that are” and why is not important. But wouldn’t it be good if we could all be just a little bit curious about this world in which we live? Wouldn’t it good if we had a solid enough grounding in the inquiry process that we could now at least ponder the questions intelligently?

I have a lot of thoughts about science, about learning and teaching, about exploring, about the natural world and what we do and don’t understand, and here I am with a whole blog space to fill. Next post, come along with me on a magic kayak ride…