It’s just now become spring officially, but in my backyard it was here a week or two ago, when I could see the first show of yellow on the tips of the daffodils. Because of course that’s how spring arrives, rolling out in a slow, predictable sweep across latitudes and landscapes. Only, spring flowers aren’t as reliable as they used to be. All the seasons have begun to creep, as climate change has its way with temperature and precipitation patterns.
As biologists work to understand how organisms and ecosystems are responding to shifting seasons, they’re taking a new look at an old science. Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events, such as when a lake freezes over, a plant’s buds break open, or the first migratory bird touches down. Farmers used to use these observations for clues of when to plant and when to harvest. Now biologists are turning to them for clues to how global warming is affecting the natural rhythms of species and communities. They compare the dates of various phenophases (events in the life cycles of plants and animals) across a wide area over multiple seasons, looking for patterns and trends.
This work relies on many thousands of non-scientists to do the heavy lifting - local observers who watch and report when leaves and flowers appear and wither and when birds and butterflies come and go. That’s where teachers and students can get involved. In the last few years, several phenological projects have gone online, making it remarkably easy to join in. Two of the best are BudBurst and The National Phenology Network.
BudBurst is breezier, more colorful, and easier to navigate. It also includes date and species maps that show the location and content of recent reports, which allow you to compare the timing of events in your area with those around the country, and to get a general sense of the ebb and flow of the seasons.
The USA National Phenology Network is on the austere side, but contains more detailed information on each plant species and how to recognize each phenophase. It also has a more extensive set of links and resources, and plans to expand to include animal observations in 2010.
Both these sites provide ideas and guides for incorporating phenology into the classroom. In the process, students will learn how to observe and describe nature, and collect and share scientific data. Phenology is especially appropriate for distance education. It’s a simple and straightforward exercise that can be done easily, without supervision. Depending on how widely scattered students are, distinct regional difference should show up and provide the opportunity for exploring climatic and ecological variations.
Phenology is only one area in which interested amateurs can make significant contributions to scientific knowledge. There are many others, from bird counts and nest watches to weather monitoring and sifting through radio transmissions from space. Participating in “citizen science” can give students a feel for how science is done and maybe even a continuing interest in biology that lasts long after a course is over. Have you incorporated citizen science into your classroom? Was it effective and valuable, or did it seem more like busy work to your students than real science? I’ll be discussing other citizen science options in later blogs.
Photo by Martin Hirteiter