Fifth-grader Brittany Goldman holds up a ruler to the branches of a young pinyon pine no bigger than herself. After moving back several needles, Goldman determines where the new growth starts and takes a measurement.
“16 cm,” she tells her lab partner Dulce Acedo. Acedo makes a note of the number in her notebook, which has measurements from several nearby pinyon pine trees behind Frontier Elementary School.
Acedo deducts after studying the puny branch that there is at least four years of growth represented on it. Science teacher Carmelita Locke points out that small dots on the branch represent where growth starts and stops each year, when you count up the dots, you get four years for this particular tree. In larger trees, you take core samples.
Around them, dozens of groups of students hold rulers up to trees, shouting numbers and making note of scale infestation.
Acedo and Goldman are part of Locke’s fifth-grade class replicating research by a pinyon ecology research group at Northern Arizona University.
Last summer, Locke worked with researches to conduct similar research in Flagstaff’s Sunset Crater and returned this year to continue the program with students.
Under the Teachers as Investigators program, Locke received $5,000 for equipment for further research, including a laptop computer, dissecting microscope, a tree borer and 13 GPS units.
The Whiteriver Elementary School in Whiteriver is also completing a similar project.
Using rulers, handheld counters and GPS devices, students study the effects of climate change on pinyon pine growth and insect herbivory. Students do this by tracking stem growth, strobili production and cone production of trees and then compare it with temperature and precipitation data from the National Weather Service, Locke explained.
Sounds technical enough, but Locke has broken the study down into digestible chunks for the students. The first step, and most fun students agreed, is collecting data from the trees throughout the year and then plotting graphs, which allows them to compare growth with weather data.
“I really like doing it,” Goldman said while measuring.
“We get to come outside,” Acedo beamed, “but we have been poked a lot.”
Students began the project at the beginning of the year and have already identified 150 pinyon pines on campus. Students tagged each pinyon with an orange tag. From the 150, students are studying 12 small trees, which are easiest to measure, given their size.
Later this year, Michelle Howell, field researcher at NAU, will visit FES and help students treat 10 separate trees for insect infestation. Students will then track these trees and compare their growth to the 12 original trees.
At the end of the year, students will graph stem growth and compare it with research from NAU. They will also take a field trip to Sunset Crater for hands-on research.
Locke said she hopes students take away from the project how scientists conduct research and the importance of replicating studies.
For example, research collected at NAU on pinyon pines suggests that during drought years, scale increases and stem growth declines.
When the scale is removed, trees bounce back and growth increases.
However, just because one experiment determined this, another research study may disprove it.
“Everything has to be replicated for good science,” she said. “Scientist don’t prove anything, they test an idea.”
Locke said she also hopes students understand that if they really want to understand something, they can conduct research and find an answer.
“Where else are kids going to get these kinds of experiences,” Locke said.
Locke plans to carry the program forward from year to year, eventually hoping to amass years of data on how climate change affects insect infestation and tree growth.