Back to School
It seemed a long way off last June, when happy children spilled off the bus with a whole summer in front of them, but suddenly it is September and the beginning of a new school year. The Northern Research Station’s home page is going back to school too. This month we feature an employee who relishes advocating for STEM, research finding that trees on the school grounds enhance academic performance, a publication concluding that kids’ ties to nature are stronger when they are forged informally, and a partnership that is making i-Tree a teaching tool.
What can you do to make your school more sustainable?
Project Learning Tree’s GreenSchools Investigations can help you explore your school grounds, energy use, water use, waste and recycling, and school environment.
If you glance at Diane Gardin’s resume, you might assume it reflects a career based entirely on a deep and abiding respect for nature. Since she left the U.S. Army Reserve with the rank of sergeant almost 30 years ago, Gardin has worked for the U.S. Geologic Survey, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Gardin has a deep and abiding respect for the environment, but her main objective after serving for 6 years with the Reserves in Germany was to work her way home to Michigan.
Located in the Northern Research Station’s lab in Lansing, Mich., for the past decade Gardin has provided administrative support to three Northern Research Station work units, one focused on fire science, one on invasive insects and one on communication and science delivery.
Bouncing between units and tasks is one of the aspects of her job that Gardin most enjoys. In addition to handling purchasing, contracts, vehicles, tracking the budget for one research unit, assisting with travel and coordinating maintenance for the Lansing office, she also serves on the Lansing office safety team and Women’s Special Emphasis Program Manager for the Northeastern Region. “I’m glad that I don’t have a job where I do the same thing all the time,” she said. “That would be boring.”
Last year, Gardin had an opportunity to do work in a detail position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Office of Civil Rights with an assignment that was very close to her heart. As an equal opportunity specialist in a region extending from Maine to Minnesota and from Missouri to Maryland, Gardin worked to ensure that Forest Service actions did not create barriers related to race, national origin, sexual orientation, or disabilities. “My job was to make sure that whatever program or facility was being offered was accessible, that everyone gets to do it,” Gardin said. “I enjoyed that part of the job.”
In her free time, Gardin writes poetry, teaches Sunday school, and is involved in her church’s racial reconciliation effort. “I believe that we’re all going to be together one day, so we may as well learn how now,” she said.
Both in her professional life and personal life, Gardin is passionate about giving young people encouragement to find a career that is meaningful. Representing the Forest Service in presentations to school groups is particularly meaningful for her. “I love to see kids get excited about science,” Gardin said. “Seeing their eyes light up when they hear about what they can do is so rewarding.”
That message is very personal for Gardin, who excelled at math and science as a student but was discouraged from pursuing a career in science on the basis of both her race and her gender. “I tell kids, don’t let anyone deter you, do what interests you,” she said.
Lasting environmental commitment begins with children's informal experiences in nature
If the summer came and went and you never had a chance to sign your child up for sports camp or clarinet lessons, social scientist Dave Bengston has good news for you. A summer, or even a day, spent in the woods without the benefit of a program, schedule or guide can be a formative experience with lasting benefits.
Previous research has documented connections between experiences in nature during childhood and lifelong commitment to the outdoors or outdoor activities. In a paper published in the journal Environment and Behavior titled “Mechanisms of children's exposure to nature: Predicting adulthood environmental citizenship and commitment to nature-based activities,” Bengston and lead author Stanley Asah of the University of Washington explored the question of whether the different ways people spend time in nature as children matters in forming lifelong attachments to nature. The study was conducted by surveying USDA Forest Service employees on their personal introduction to nature as children and their current attitudes. The results suggest that time spent alone or with friends, i.e. no adults, was the greatest predictor of lifelong attachment to nature.
For Bengston, a self-described “free range” child in his youth, those results rang true. “I spent most of my childhood running around the woods,” Bengston said. “I was not always home for lunch, but I was definitely home by dinner.”
Researchers looked at four ways in which children and youth are exposed to nature and the extent to which different exposure mechanisms are associated with long-term attitudes: voluntary engagement (on one's own and with friends); with family; through school-related programs; and through extracurricular organized programs such as churches and Scout groups.
They found that when it comes to the outdoors, lack of structure builds the strongest ties to nature. Voluntary engagement with nature emerged as the strongest predictor of a number of aspects of adulthood environmental citizenship and of behavioral and attitudinal commitments to nature-based activities.
Because nature can have such profound effects throughout a person’s lifetime, identifying the most beneficial ways for children to spend time in nature matters to parents and everyone else working to make children and the adults they become healthier and happier.
Trees near schools
Trees deliver a wide array of benefits, especially in urban areas. From providing shade to serving as wildlife habitat to reducing air pollution and improving water quality, their presence enhances quality of life for city dwellers. Now, research recently conducted in the Chicago Public School District is linking the trees growing in school yards to increased academic achievement.
A growing body of research has uncovered a link between greenness around schools and students’ academic achievement in those schools. But many of those studies have been in middle class or wealthier school districts and it has been unclear whether the results could be attributed purely to greenness or whether above-average resources played a role. Northern Research Station scientists and partners have extended previous research on the link between greenness and academic achievement to the Chicago Public School District, where nine out of 10 children are eligible to receive free lunches.
Study results showed a strong relationship between greenness and achievement in math and reading independent of other factors such as income, race/ethnicity, pupil/teacher ratio, percent bilingual and school size. Scientists further examined the effects of tree cover separately from grass and shrub cover. Trees were found to make the most difference. And whether trees were located on the school grounds, as opposed to in the surrounding neighborhood, was the most significant predictor.
“Results of the study suggest that greening has the potential to mitigate academic underachievement in high-poverty schools,” said Sonya Sachdeva, research social scientist with the Northern Research Station and study co-author. This is good news for school administrators looking to boost academic achievement in low-resource schools.
Teaching with i-Tree
For more than a decade, i-Tree tools and software have helped more than 320,000 users worldwide understand the ecological and economic benefits of trees. A new partnership with Project Learning Tree® puts i-Tree in the hands of educators and students, helping them assess the benefits of trees on their school grounds, and in their neighborhoods and communities.
Teaching With i-Tree is hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning for middle and high school students, after-school groups, scouts, and families. Students identify and measure trees, assess the health of trees, assess the overall contribution of trees to their environment (such as improving air quality and lowering energy costs for homes and buildings), and calculate the dollar value of those benefits. Their findings can be used to plan future tree plantings on school grounds or incorporated into broader green school efforts to make their schools more healthy and energy efficient.
Teaching With i-Tree, published in March 2018, is the second most popular page on Project Learning Tree’s curriculum website. More than 1,300 individuals from 34 countries have downloaded Teaching with i-Tree in just the past year. The English version is most popular, but it is also available, and has been downloaded, in French, Chinese (Mandarin), and Spanish.
Small group sessions at regional and national environmental education meetings gave educators a chance to test the lesson plans and guide curriculum development. I-Tree Design, the basis for Teaching with i-Tree, lends itself well to the concept of engineering and design, something teachers are looking for to meet Next Generation Science Standards. “This is something we can actually use with real-world application,” said Patti Farris, a middle school science teacher.
I-Tree partners include Davey Tree Expert Company, Arbor Day Foundation, Society of Municipal Arborists, International Society of Arboriculture, Casey Trees, and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Project Learning Tree® is administered by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.