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Science in Season

Originally appears in the Fall 2014 issue

THIS MORNING, the first flower on my compass plant opened  – a bright yellow greeting in celebration of a new day.  Every time I step outside the door, I see something new and wondrous in the “same old” scenery.  Too many educators go from their front doors to their cars, their cars to their classrooms, without registering the slender sliver of moon hanging in the morning sky, the new spider web strung cleverly between the blades of grass, or the few newly orange leaves on the serviceberry.  Nature forms the background of our lives but seldom becomes the main attraction despite the constant drama and learning opportunities in our yards, parks, and wild spaces.  We live in a time when most people learn more about nature from TV and the internet than from nature itself, although nature, in some form, is almost always accessible to us.

My life is richer, and my understandings of the workings of the world deeper, because of my awareness of the natural phenomena around me.  This is a gift I want to share with my students. At Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake, IL, our students learn in and from nature on a daily basis.  It is not just the setting, but the classroom, the teacher, and the lessons.  One scientific discipline we use to engage our K-8 students in observing and learning from nature is phenology.

Phenology is the study of periodic events in nature, such as migration, flowering, dormancy – any seasonal life cycle or climate events.  It is one of the oldest sciences; historically, individual survival hinged upon phenological observations. They dictated such things as when to tap maple trees for sap, when to plant crops, and when to prepare for winter.   Today, as climate change alters the timing and location of life cycle events, phenological data informs the survival of all of us.   Many groups and organizations, listed in the resources section, are collecting phenology data from around the nation and world to help increase our understanding of the impact of climate change.

Students naturally engage in phenology.  Without ever hearing the word, each of us is a phenologist.  I demonstrate this to my students early on as I introduce them to the “fancy science word” for the seasonal observations they already make.  I present students pictures of nature, from wide-open landscapes to individual flowers or animals engaged in a specific behavior.  Students are tasked with using the evidence from each photo to write an argument to support their claim of the season, and if possible, the month, in which the photo was taken.

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Naomi Dietzel Hershiser is the Dean of Environmental Learning at Prairie Crossing Charter School, a K-8 school with an environmental focus in Grayslake, Illinois. In this capacity, she works with teachers and students to ensure that all classes at Prairie Crossing focus on environmental literacy and learning in and from nature. Her interest in phenology is both professional and personal; she records her own observations of nature through the year in her nature journal and keeps records of seasonal occurrences.