About Forest Watch
The Forest Watch program conducts basic and applied research on forest ecosystems in New England.

Data is collected by students in grades K-12, sampled from trees in their study area.

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This program is funded by the New Hampshire Space Grant Consortium, located at the University of New Hampshire's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space.

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Forest Watch News
Science Education in Our Schools:
  A Growing Need

December , 2010

THIS YEAR, as Forest Watch approaches its 20th anniversary, the wind is shifting. We see new interest in Forest Watch from many quarters.  Our understanding of the fall-off in low level ozone clearly needs further study. White pines are healthier and measured levels of ground level ozone in New England have declined in the last decade. Yet there are more automobiles producing nitrogen gases. And there are more hot summer days that create the ideal photochemical conditions for production of ozone. Why aren’t we seeing more exceedance days?

Additionally, as federal funding for research science declines, scientists are beginning to realize that citizen science, research done carefully by students, teachers and other trained volunteers can provide invaluable information.  Keen observers in the field can also notice change and collect samples of unusual events which laboratory scientists might miss. Longterm studies also have new value as scientists grapple with the mysteries of climate change. 

We also know that our schools need to increase their focus on science education. Across New Hampshire, 2010 science tests administered by the New England Common Assessment Program found that 45% of 4th graders, 73% of 8th graders and 76% of 11th grades are “partially proficient” or “substantially below proficient” in understanding science concepts (NH Dept. of Ed. 2010). New Hampshire has won praise for including programs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Earth system science, inquiry-based learning and 21st century technologies in its educational standards (TERC 2007). However, both local and national observers report that too few of such standards have been implemented. Other New England states do not yet even address the need for 21st century science in public schools.

Pressure for more sophisticated science education is mounting as scientists, federal agencies and non-governmental advocacy groups see climate change on the horizon.  The National Science Foundation, for example, recently exhorted universities to develop a national system for improving science education to (A) train a new generation of scientists to confront the many challenges which climate change poses; and (B) to prepare the American people to understand and respond to the hardships and changes which climate change will bring.  This is a sobering call for more science yet many scientists and agencies see that the public school is paralyzed to respond:

Climate change is a highly interdisciplinary, pedagogically challenging subject that does not fit easily into discipline-based science curricula or assessments. However, a variety of factors—chief among them being barriers introduced by local STEM education policies and inadequate teacher preparation in this subject matter—prevent widespread exposure of learners to effective instruction on climate, or engagement of the most talented minds in climate-related education and career paths. (NSF, 2010)

In a closer analysis of this huge issue, educators also know that many minority populations of students are in extreme need of improved science training. Here in New Hampshire, for example, we recognize that children from rural backgrounds experience higher dropout rates and leave school prematurely, compared to non-rural students (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, 2008). They perform more poorly than their peers on science and math achievement tests and are underrepresented in science careers.

Urban schools, particularly those in New England’s old mill cities, and diverse populations of children in those cities need equal assistance with science education. And, our Forest Watch team has recently had the honor of teaching our skills in field science, spectral measurement and the use of remote sensing to native American students. These students also need new support for science studies. Too often, we hear from Forest Watch teachers that their program has been removed from the curriculum, that white pines are cut down, that children can no longer go outside, that classrooms lack even microscopes for science studies.

How can teachers confront these daunting issues? The Handbook of Research on Science Education (2007) suggests that rural teachers might teach science within a curricular framework that consciously involves a cooperative inclusion of members of the community, the unique needs of the community’s school and its students, and builds on the capabilities of teachers found in those schools. “Thus, science education in rural schools must be constructed from the building blocks that exist in rural schools.”

This is more than a “make do” sop or pedantic adage. What if teachers did go out into their communities to use nature outside the classroom windows as scientific subject matter and to call on neighbors, students’ relatives, anyone who touches nature to bring samples into school. What if we turn science towards inductive observation, contemplation and thoughtful analysis of what students see in their own environments? Urban or rural, suburban or wilderness, Nature awaits every teacher and her students.

Forest Watch might help undaunted teachers find a pathway through this forest of problems. A pioneer outreach program, Forest Watch has already proven its value in training teachers about new science and technology, about igniting student interest in science, and in building longterm scientific data from citizen scientists. We already do it! Forest Watch has a job to do collecting more information, observing changes in our forests, and working collaboratively school to university. The Forest Watch framework, our communications system, our protocols, training and reporting methods are also ideally suited for new studies in climate change.

This year, we are proposing two new areas of study called Maple Watch, a new branch on our white pine tree. Maple Watch hopes to engage students and teachers in monitoring sugar maples just as they monitor white pines. Sugar maples are an indicator species for rising temperatures and changing weather patterns. The program will include biometric and spectral measures much the same as schools now do for white pines/ozone studies. In addition, Forest Watch hopes to add a new chemistry component which students and teachers may use in studies of both white pine and sugar maple. As the world of science grows more complicated, so does our learning. Increasingly questions about chemistry intrude in biological studies. What is ozone? How do reactive atmospheric gases work? How to they affect plant tissues? We are delighted to have the enthusiastic help of Dr. Robert Talbot, Dr. Sterling Tomellini, and Liz Brady, a PhD candidate in chemistry here at UNH. We also have help from Dr. Walter Shortle, a senior research biochemist in the Northeast Research Station, U.S. Forest Service, here in Durham.

Forest Watch will discuss these new ideas at workshops and training meetings throughout 2011. We will call on teachers to brainstorm how we can build new interest in our program and work collaboratively with our growing team at UNH to build new vibrancy into Forest Watch. We will call on UNH thinkers and leaders to help Forest Watch find new and increased funding. And we will call on UNH students to bring Forest Watch the energy it needs to grow these new buds of learning. — Martha Carlson, December 2010