Leading, Training, and Motivating Citizen Scientists

By Namrata Sengupta

Ellie Perry was involved with the Earthwatch Urban Resiliency (UR) Program since June 2014, as the Los Angeles area Program Consultant. She assisted with the Operation Resilient Trees project. Ellie recruited and led citizen scientists into the field as well as trained them to collect data independently, during these past years. As we are wrapping up the Operation Resilient Trees project to get ready for our new program Operation Healthy Air, we decided to catch up with Ellie and let her share some of her experiences in leading citizen science initiatives.

Ellie Perry (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie Perry (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q1. What has been the most exciting part of being associated with the UR program?

I think most of the excitement came with trying to build a citizen science program almost entirely from scratch in an area where the organization (leading it) didn’t have much of a local presence to start.  Since there were so many directions the program could go, it was an exciting process to build it from the ground up, try out different engagement models, and figure out what ultimately would stick and resonate with people in the region.  

(photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
(Photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q2. Which aspect of the program motivated you the most?

I was mostly motivated by the citizen scientists themselves, and how committed they were to contributing and volunteering their time.  During my tenure, hundreds of people dedicated hours and hours to collect data for this project, not to mention the many educators who led entire classrooms semester after semester in collecting data in the field.  To freely volunteer that much time and put in that much effort when the final policy impacts from their work are still years off, takes serious dedication and foresight.  Citizen science isn’t as immediately gratifying as something like volunteering at a soup kitchen, doing a beach clean-up, or working at an animal shelter, and a lot of potential volunteers get turned off by the fact that it may take months or years for their efforts to result in something tangible they can immediately see.  The fact that these volunteers decided to serve as citizen scientists fully understanding that is admirable.  

(photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie interacting with citizen scientists (Photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q3. What were some of the challenges you experienced while working with this program?

One of the current problems in citizen science as a whole is the general suspicion that volunteers will never be able to collect data as efficiently as a scientist.  Even though many of these measurements are relatively easy to take, there was constant scrutiny and pressure on the effectiveness of the training, the quality of the data, the competency of the volunteers, etc. especially since there was no previous benchmark to compare with.

Q4. Can you share one or two of your favorite experiences from the program?

Reverting to the issue of citizen scientist-collected data being scrutinized harder than that collected by scientists, it was incredibly satisfying to hear the results of the recent quality control study the lab/Earthwatch performed on the data.  There’s a recent blog post covering the full results, but they mostly found that the data the citizen scientists were bringing in was well within 95%+ accuracy of the data collected by themselves (which statistically is no difference at all).  It gave a lot of confidence to the researchers and Earthwatch, and it was a real affirmation that the training we were providing to the citizen scientists was effective.  

Ellie with Operation Resilient Trees - citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Ellie with Operation Resilient Trees – citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

Q5. What message would you like to give to the larger community interested in getting involved in citizen science projects and initiatives?

I would say it’s important to be patient if you’re going to get involved with citizen science.  As I mentioned previously, it’s a very slow walk from data to results to policy impacts, not a sprint. Bridging the communication gap between science and the public is an incredibly rare skill, and it’s not very common to find leaders who can speak to both sides of the table equally well.  Being patient while the kinks that will ultimately arise as a result get worked out is important if you want to stay involved for the long haul.  

Urban Resiliency Program citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)
Urban Resiliency Program citizen scientists (photo credit: Carrie Lederer)

To explore citizen science opportunities with the UR program, connect with us and learn how to get involved.

Savvy and Sensing: Our Next Generation of Citizen Scientists

By Namrata Sengupta

In the age of Fitbit, iPhone health apps, and social media, the technology-savvy user is keeping track of their own health, counting the extra calories, developing fitness routines, and tweeting success stories on a daily basis. The requirement for personal tracking devices is high, and science is delivering to this demand. A similar trend is surfacing quite prominently in the area of environmental and climate science. In recent times we have seen the development of affordable digital sensing devices for monitoring the environment (e.g. water, soil, and air quality). The users of these devices are not just the health conscious runners or bikers in the neighborhood, but a growing community of concerned citizens who we call “citizen scientists.” Empowering this group of individuals with digital technologies is our step towards a movement called “citizen sensing.”

When Citizens Sense Pollution

Even with an increasing number of successful citizen science programs around the world, there is often some level of concern raised by scientists, politicians, and other key stakeholders about the credibility of data collected through citizen-led monitoring programs. At the same time, there are entities which support citizen science generated data with the consensus that ‘citizen sensing’ can help provide additional environmental data in areas where monitoring infrastructure is currently absent or limited (Gabrys et al., 2016). The overall support garnered in the whole ‘citizen sensing’ approach revolves majorly around the fact that this practice could lead to ‘indicative measurements’ about environmental pollution. If scientists can rely on indicative organisms (e.g. lichens) to study patterns and changes in environmental conditions, then having access to additional ‘indicative measurements’ of pollution through low-cost sensors should also be beneficial.

Just Good Enough (Data) for the Environment

Rising above the criticism faced from certain constituencies about citizen data, here we discuss how these data sets can go forward in generating impactful ‘data stories’ and help in initiating dialogues with environmental regulators, scientists, and policy makers. Data stories can be compelling as they provide more insight into environmental pollution over time and space. The consensus is not to replace ongoing academic laboratory research or agency led monitoring projects, but adding on to these results and reports with indicative trends and “just good enough data” supporting larger environmental goals (Gabrys et al., 2016).


Operation Healthy Air

Acknowledging the crucial role which citizen sensing projects can play in generating evidence-worthy data stories, we are launching the Operation Healthy Air (OHA) project in California this summer. The goal of the program is to understand how local habitats (trees and water bodies) and human-made infrastructure (such as buildings and pavements) affect air quality and temperature. After identifying and building a local citizen network, air sensors will be distributed which have the ability to detect temperature, humidity, and atmospheric ozone levels.


The top five objectives of the OHA project are:

  1. Getting access to air quality data in areas where there is relative absence of monitoring
  2. Gathering data over longer monitoring periods, versus episodic and random time points
  3. Identifying patterns and trends in the data and tying them with the findings from research and government led air sensor data
  4. Using the data to develop some predictive models for our climate study goals
  5. Identifying geographic areas and locations which may need follow-up monitoring

Finally, we hope the OHA project will help in developing data stories with patterns, trends, and ‘just good enough data’ to present them to our regulators and scientific partners.

Overall, the OHA data story will help answer three central questions:

  • If, where, and to what extent are current air-pollution events occurring?
  • Do we need improved air quality regulations from local government and increased accountability from industry?
  • Is there a requirement for more investment in air quality infrastructure?


If you wish to help find answers to these questions and participate as a citizen scientist in one of our pilot sampling campaigns for OHA in Long Beach, Chino, and the Inland Empire this summer, then keep in touch with us through Facebook and subscribe to our monthly newsletter. Next year, we also plan to expand the program to greater Los Angeles and other cities. Stay in touch to be a part of our citizen data stories.



Measuring Success: Operation Resilient Trees in the Classroom

Joe Hartley class(Photo credit for all pictures in this blog post goes to Carrie Lederer: http://www.carrierpigeonproductions.com)

Can the same training materials used to turn members of the public into bonafide citizen scientists be used to teach students to become citizen scientists as well?  Absolutely!  And to prove it, microgrant awardee Joe Hartley from Larchmont Charter School based a multi-day lesson plan on the Operation Resilient Trees protocol for 20 of his 8th grade students, collecting valuable measurements for Resilient Trees 3.0 in the process.  Here are his thoughts:

  1. Name (First and Last):
    Joe Hartley
  2. School/Organization:
    Larchmont Charter School, 2801 6th, Los Angeles, CA 90057
  3. Number of Students and Age/Grade Ranges that participated:

20 students, 13-14 years old/8th grade (as of March, 2017)

  1. What urban forestry concepts did you teach in the classroom, and what methods did you use? 

Mr Joe Hartley

I used the Earthwatch Powerpoints at the beginning to introduce them to the project, followed by a couple of days of tree identification that were less than successful, possibly because the students were middle-schoolers. We spent a couple of days training on the equipment, and a day in doing the actual measurements.


  1. What hands-on activities did you have your students perform to reinforce these concepts?

Mr Hartley's measures

We practiced at some length to allow mastery of the GPS unit, the measuring of tree diameters (very hard for middle schoolers to remember which side of the diameter measure to use, and required almost universal correction and reteaching), and even the use of tape measures.

  1. How did you use and/or modify Earthwatch’s Resilient Trees protocol in your hands-on activity to measure trees? (E.g. what data fields did you use, leave out, or adapt)No modifications.
  2. What were the best positive outcomes for your students as a result of these urban forestry lesson plans?
    EW plug w kids
    The students showed a clear pride of authorship and work in completing all the measurements of trees on rather difficult terrain (sloping hills around La Fayette Park). They struggled with some of the measurements (particularly the tree diameter), but eventually all of them got it right, even if they needed a bit of reminding. By the end of the class, they were demonstrably faster and more accurate in their measurements.

Kids measure 3

  1. What did your students have the most fun doing?

They really got into taking the measurements and working the equipment.

  1. What were some challenges you faced in implementing these lesson plans? Do you have any best practices or techniques you used to overcome these challenges?I really didn’t have enough equipment to train the students efficiently in the way I structured it with only two GPS units and one kit on hand. I recommend deferring equipment training until you get the Earthwatch kits, and then have them to all the measurements on different trees, and then do the measurements the next class session. I’m hopeful to get some more GPS units so I won’t have that problem in the future, but you can do it just by assuring that you have the kits for long enough for the students to train with them. Don’t try to teach middle-school students tree identification; there are too many variables for them to process. Focus on having them taking the measurements. High school students may be able to handle the tree identification, but we spun our wheels with the middle-schoolers.

Want a copy of the lesson plans Joe used in his classroom?  Download the lesson plan outlines here:
Resilient Tree Initiative Lesson Plans-Hartley

  1. What advice do you have for fellow educators wanting to implement a similar lesson plan? Any recommendations for facilitation techniques?I did a lot of work teaching the proper identification of the trees. For middle school, I think it was overkill. Were I to do it again, I’d simply decide which trees were present, assign one to each team, and have them locate it in the park as part of the exercise.It’s also important to give the students lots of practice on real trees. I was limited to a bunch of rubber trees on our campus. The other limitation we had was that at that time I didn’t have quite enough tape measures to go around (BTW, I supplemented the bags provided by Earthwatch with 100’ tape measured, which I recommend be added to the kit or provided by the school; they’re not expensive and useful for all sorts of other things). I would suggest back-to-back lessons, where the students are doing measurements on trees that are roughly the size of those they will measure, but not the ones they will actually measure. In my revised lesson plan, we’d wait to train until we had all the kits in hand, because it’s easy to be too short in the equipment. So I’d train them with the exact kits they’re going to use, and then the next day assign the actual measurements. I’d have them run through ALL the measurements instead waiting for the day of the training to demonstrate the ones we couldn’t do at school. This requires an available park, but ours is quite literally just across the street!
  1. If other educators have questions about how you implemented your lesson plan, may they contact you?  If so, please list the contact information you would like publicly displayed on our website.I would be pleased and honored. Best way of contacting me is by email at hartley@larchmontcharter.org, or mail at Joe Hartley/Larchmont Charter School/2801 6th St./Los Angeles, CA 90057.  I’ll email them my cell phone from there.
  2. Do you personally plan to share this with/recommend these activities to other educators?  Why or why not?

Mr Hartley's measures 4

The project was extremely popular with the students, once they got into the habit of measuring. We had a similar reaction earlier in the year to the “Globe at Night” project, where the students participated enthusiastically once they began observations. This kind of “hands-on” experience, particularly outside the classroom, is extremely valuable even if the precise subjects (e.g., botany and urban forest ecology) are not directly in the year’s curriculum. Our students, like most, often lack basic measuring skills, which has serious drawbacks in math and science. Any activity that generates interest while simultaneously allowing the students to practice real measurement for an obviously real and important study has significant positive carry-over to all math and science courses they will take in middle school and high school.

Our school is a constructivist school by design, and most of the teachers and students have a keen interest in environmental matters. I have been working with other science teachers as well as our incoming new administration to formalize this program and train the students progressively from middle-school onward so that we will build a cadre of dedicated, well-trained teenager able to handle increasingly-sophisticated measurements and monitoring. Earthwatch has been an invaluable beginning step for the student, the school, and me personally in figuring out how best to structure this training.

For more on Joe’s experience working on Operation Resilient Trees with his students, visit his own blog post on this project here:  https://lessthan3ley.wordpress.com/2017/04/02/citizen-science-at-larchmont-middle-school-earthwatchs-resilient-trees-project/ 

Validating Citizen Science Data: How We Know Its Useful


By Mark Chandler

Ensuring data quality is a central pillar of engaging the public in doing science (e.g. community science, aka citizen science). The data collected by community scientists needs to meet certain quality criteria for it to be useful as an accurate representation of the world the researchers are investigating. The lay participant also wants to make sure his or her time and effort is put to good use, and that the data they collect is valid and useful.

How do we decide whether the data collected on our Urban Resiliency projects are “fit for purpose”?

Here’s one way: a team of well-trained people re-measure a sample of trees previously measured by public participants and see whether there is a difference. In December 2016, I joined a team of University California researchers to do just that – re-measure 30 trees in several parks that had been measured previously by members of the public. Guess what? The data collected by the public is almost indistinguishable from that which we measured.

Almost all data (> 93 %) on all variables (GPS location, tree diameter at breast height (DBH), canopy breath, percent permeable cover within 30 ft) collected by the public were essentially identical to that collected by the UCR research team.  GPS location data was indistinguishable from data collected by the UCR team; DBH varied by less than 0.2 inches between the two measures; canopy breadth was off by ~ 1 ft on each side, and differences in permeability between volunteer and UCR team data was less than 6 %. There were very few if any outliers (where there was a > 20 % difference between values). This is a huge tribute to the diligence of the public in collecting data, but also to the rest of the team (UC scientists Peter Ibsen, Darrel Jenerette, Julie Ripplinger and Earthwatch staff Ellie Perry) who prepare the program and ensure the participants are prepared and supported.

In full disclosure, we have only managed to achieve this level of data quality after learning from past missteps.  This was not the first time we had done a data quality test. In March 2016, we had re-measured 20 trees for these same variables. Here we found differing levels of data quality depending on how we supported the public participants.  Groups of participants who were trained and supported while collecting their data — by a field team leader such as Earthwatch’s Ellie Perry or a trained leader from one of our partners — collected data of very high quality. However, participants with less support – or who trained using only our web site to learn the techniques – collected data with significantly lower quality (only 50 and 70 % of data was high quality). Using these lessons learned, we started focusing more on training certified citizen scientists – and providing more events at which trained leaders were present.

Achieving high levels of data quality using community participants is not unusual – but it does require significant effort and thought from both the participants side, but also the project creators (in this case UC Riverside scientists, Earthwatch and local partners). Re-measuring data collected by participants is but one step.  In this case, we tackled the challenge of ensuring quality data in four phases:

  1. First we make a data plan that describes how the participants will be best prepared to collect quality data will be collected, and how the data will be shared and used post collection.
  2. Second, we prepare (train) and support participants during data collection events.
  3. Third, we use a series of tests to assess and ensure sufficient data quality, and filters that flag potentially erroneous (out of range) data
  4. Four – we learn from what has worked well (or not) – and amend our protocols and training accordingly to ensure we meet our desired standards.

These steps are actually best practice for doing science with or without the benefit of community participants.  And just following the steps is no guarantee for success – as real differences exist across humans in their ability and desire to learn how to  needed data.

Clearly there will be data collection techniques or approaches that require highly trained observers with more sophisticated skills and capabilities – and not everyone will be able or want to achieve that level of ability. Species identification skills are one example. However, scientists obviously do not hold a monopoly in attaining these levels of skill; many community/citizen scientists have expertise in natural history observations that most scientists never attain!

While the steps involved in assuring data quality can be time consuming and repetitive – testing and ensuring high quality project data elevates confidence in the project leads (e.g. partners, researchers, community leaders) and the participants. And it has been shown in various studies that increasing the confidence of the participants in executing their tasks also improves the data quality– forming a positive feedback loop in the project overall.

Luckily for the Urban Resiliency projects to date, we have found a community of researchers and public participants who bring the interest, passion and time to generate valuable and useful data.  Thank you!

We are always looking for ways to improve and invite your comments and suggestions regarding data quality and community science projects.  Just contact me directly at mchandler@earthwatch.org.

How are our urban trees cooling Southern California?

By Sheri A. Shiflett, Ph.D. (presently a Biological Sciences Environmental Manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

One of the most satisfying events of a career in science is in getting the results of your hard work, sweat (and tears) published in a scientific publication – vetted by your (critical) peers. Will all the data collected lead to some interesting insights that others can use to make the world a better place? This is what I hope happens with all of my research, which was recently published in Science of the Total Environment. This is also important to share back with the funder of our research program – the NASA Earth Science program (as part of the HyspIRI preparatory mission) and Earthwatch. Funders including governmental agencies such as NASA are under increasing scrutiny to demonstrate the relevance of public funding for science and it is valuable for them to see that their funding results in making the planet a better place for all.

The research focused on characterizing how vegetation contributes to cooling of urban environments and cooling effectiveness of vegetation throughout the day and across a dramatic climate gradient spanning mild coastal to extreme desert conditions in Southern California (SoCal). This research was part of my Postdoctoral Research project from the University California-Riverside in the Jenerette Lab, where I worked from 2014 – 2015. I chose to study interactions between vegetation cover, land surface and air temperatures across SoCal because not only does the Greater Los Angeles Region include cities with vastly different climates (i.e., temperature and precipitation patterns), but the area includes over 18 million residents who are subjected to increasing frequency of high temperature periods.

Over the past 40 years, many studies have shown that urban environments are hotter than the surrounding countryside – a phenomenon termed the urban heat island effect. Cities have a high amount of built (i.e. buildings, pavement, etc.) cover relative to natural or green space, and the materials used to build cities  are associated with an increased capacity to hold heat leading to warmer nighttime urban air temperatures. In urban areas, thermal characteristics of various surfaces show a high degree of variation from place to place and as a result, there may be large differences in land surface and air temperatures within a city that change throughout the day, and from season to season. These two parameters, land surface temperature and air temperature both have important implications for human well-being. High air temperature influences energy demands and can lead to excessive air conditioning use. In addition, surface temperature and air temperature are both related to human health and are linked to heat-related illnesses.

In many cities across the United States, increasing vegetation cover is being widely used as a tool to reduce both land surface temperature and air temperature. Vegetation has a particularly important role in cooling land surface temperature (LST) during daytime because it provides physical shading of surfaces and reduces the amount of heat absorbed by a surface compared to if it was fully exposed to full sunlight. The vegetation canopy itself also reflects back some of the sun’s rays to the atmosphere.  Vegetation can also cool air temperatures via evapotranspiration (i.e., release of water vapor to the atmosphere from plants, soils, land surfaces, and water bodies).  When liquid water (in plants and soils) is converted to water vapor, heat is absorbed from the atmosphere, causing a reduction in air temperature. Evapotranspiration can be also be thought of similarly to sweating. When a surface “sweats” and loses water to the atmosphere in the form of water vapor, both the evapotranspiring surface (e.g. leaf, skin) and the surrounding air are cooled in the process.



I wanted to find out the degree to which trees provided cooling benefits in Southern California cities. In our study, we placed temperature sensors in 100 trees in each of three cities: Los Angeles, Riverside, and Palm Springs in order to help us distinguish between nighttime and daytime changes in temperature associated with increasing vegetation cover. Each city represented a different climate. At one end of the spectrum, Los Angeles has a coastal climate, whereas at the other end, Palm Springs is characterized by an arid desert climate. In addition to placing temperature sensors across this large regional network, we also placed approximately 24 temperature sensors at the University of California Riverside’s Agricultural Station to measure vegetation cooling effectiveness at a smaller scale and across different land cover types including bare soil, grass cover, and tree cover of two different heights and canopy volume (short and tall trees which had canopies that reached 2 m/~6.5 ft and 4 m/~13 ft height).  For our microscale work, we situated sensors immediately above the ground’s surface and also slightly above human standing height (2 m or ~6.5 ft).  During our study period, NASA flew an aircraft above the SoCal region on June 13, 2014 and collected remotely sensed data of land surface temperature and additional aerial imagery of the area.

These images below show where temperature sensors were placed in three major cities throughout SoCal and a map of land surface temperature overlaying satellite imagery of SoCal.


This images below shows sensors being deployed in the field! We had a lot of fun driving around and finding the nearest tree to our pre-selected, randomized locations within each city.

field work

The series of images below show the different types of plots at the University of California’s Agricultural Research Station.



field types

In a final part of our study, we measured air temperatures during and after a substantial heatwave in the Greater Los Angeles area to determine whether or not vegetation was also effective at reducing air temperature during heatwaves. The heatwave that occurred from September 14 – 16, 2014 set several records throughout the region, including breaking a century old air temperature record for the date on September 15, 2014 and was associated with the highest electricity demand recorded in Los Angeles County! The energy demand on September 16, 2016 at 6235 MW was nearly double the amount on a typical day in Los Angeles. Heat alerts, advisories, and warnings were released by many local agencies and cooling stations were opened throughout the region to help provide relief.

This figure below shows air temperature patterns throughout the region in Los Angeles, Riverside, and Palm Springs. The heat wave, which occurred from September 14 – 16, 2014 (DOY 257-259) is notable on the figure and can be observed via increased orange/red tones across all three urban areas (Los Angeles (L) is on top, Riverside (R) is in the middle and Palm Springs (P) is along the bottom.


Our major finding was that increased vegetation cover does indeed reduce air and surface temperatures at various times of day and within each city. When we measured air and surface temperatures at regional scales (i.e., in the three cities), we found that the cooling effect by vegetation on surface temperature was most pronounced during the day and the cooling effects on air temperature were was most pronounced at night. When we measured air temperature at a very local scale (i.e., at the agricultural orchard), we found that vegetation not only cools air temperature at night but also during the day, especially immediately above the land surface. Two figures below show some of our primary findings:

time of day graph

This figure above shows the Time of Day from Midnight until 11 p.m. (or 0 – 23 hours) on the x-axis and the y-axis is the degree to which the amount of vegetation relates to the amount of green vegetation cover at that site to air temperature. Each dot on this figure represents a different day and the study was conducted over a 105 day period, meaning there are 105 dots for each hour of the day. As numbers decrease below zero, it indicates that as the amount of vegetation increases, air temperature is decreasing, and vice versa. The black dots are days/times where the relationship between vegetation cover and air temperature was statistically significant, while the gray dots are days/times where the relationship was not significant. The farther a dot is from zero, the greater the effect of vegetation cover on air temperature. In general, this figure shows that in Los Angeles and Riverside, increasing vegetation cover had a stronger effect on reduction in air temperature at night and no significant effect during the middle of the day, whereas in Palm Springs, increased vegetation cover reduced air temperature throughout the day – at least for many of the days sampled (there are a few grey dots for those days for which there was no effect):

curve graph

This second figure above shows the Time of Day from Midnight until 11 p.m. (or 0 – 23 hours) on the x-axis and air temperature on the y-axis. The top graph shows how air temperatures near the ground surface (0.1 m) varies across a 24 hour period, and the bottom graph shows air temperature at standing human height (2m/~6.5 ft) also across a day. The black line represents air temperature with no trees above, while the gray line represents air temperature where the tall vegetation canopy is present. The evidence from these data illustrate how much cooler the air temperature is with a tree above at all times of the day and night. The cooling benefits of trees are greatest near the ground’s surface, during the middle of the day, providing as much as a 10oC (or 18oF) cooling benefit.  Cooling at 6.5 feet can be up to  4oC (or 7oF).

Our data suggest initiatives to increase green cover in urban areas can mitigate urban warming and potentially reduce negative health and energy consumption consequences of high urban temperatures. Our work also showed that vegetation cooling effectiveness was increased during periods of extreme heat. That is to say that during heat waves, we found that vegetation contributed to more cooling than when each region was not experiencing a heatwave. Therefore, efforts to increase vegetation in high heat risk regions may have valuable impacts on heat vulnerability. In looking to retrofit current urban environments and build new urban infrastructure for the projected large increases in urban residents over the coming decades, using vegetation to reduce potential heat impacts from combined global and regional warming is a crucial sustainability opportunity.

This study answered some important questions – but brought up the next step that we are interested in. For example, what are the optimal arrangements of vegetation that provide maximal cooling benefits? What are the tradeoffs between water usage of trees and the cooling benefits they provide. Finally, there is a lot of variation among different tree species in terms of the size of leaves, the density of canopy coverage, the amount of water they require to grow and in turn transpire from their leaves! More research is needed to determine differences among species and to help city planners and residents decide which trees to plant in their cities and urbanized neighborhoods.  I look forward to the work by others including Peter Ibsen and Julie Ripplinger from the Jenerette lab as well as the citizen scientists who are helping them to start to answer these questions.

Using Science to Design a Better Playground (Part 2)

For the Rockdale Elementary Afterschool Schoolyard Design Club (featured in a previous blog post), the Earthwatch Institute microgrant funded a series of learning activities and lesson plans under the leadership of microgrant awardee Anupama Mann:

  1. Where did the activities take place, and who participated?

    23 students (grades 1-5) at Rockdale Visual and Performing Arts Magnet Elementary School
  2. What urban forestry concepts did you teach in the classroom? 

    The After School Club was a design exercise focused on enhancing the existing schoolyard.  Part of the class included designing a field of trees, a wildlife habitat, and a sensory garden and play structures on the school site.  In the beginning of the class a power point presentation showed the numerous schoolyards that incorporated the wildness of nature and had not been overtaken entirely by asphalt.  The children were given handouts of California trees, part of the approved list by LAUSD, to read about and use as inspiration for making the model of a single tree, a grove of trees or a forest of trees.  We identified the existing trees on the school grounds and also established areas that would benefit from having more trees and that would best suit tree growth.

  1. What hands-on activities did you have your students perform to reinforce these concepts? 

    The activities were integrated across six different lessons (as follows):

    and direct excerpts are listed below:

    Lesson 1:
    Lesson 1


    In Lesson 1 the school was divided up into five stations. Groups of students from first to fifth grades walked the site and listed what they liked about each station and what they wanted to change.

    Lesson 1 Video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqtNFWeLxeE

    Lessons 2 and 3:

    In Lesson 2, the students were shown a slide show of playgrounds from around the world. They were introduced to a more unkempt appearance of some of the grounds as trees and plants, natural and man-made materials came together to create a more visually and sensorially stimulating environment invoking curiosity and engagement. Students were then asked to keep in mind what they had seen and use that as well as their own experiences to draw a vision of their schoolyard.

    Lesson 2

    In Lesson 3, the students had to make models of what they drew. The materials included, foam board, colored paper, yarn, twigs, leaves and seeds from trees, cloth, felt etc to turn the two-dimensional drawings they had made in lesson 2 into three dimensional models. The students made ponds and pools, sand, swings, slides, bridges, zip lines, tree houses, acorn play structures, tent like areas of refuge, tunnels, flower gardens, climbing trees, murals, totem poles, ponds, and patterns on the ground.

    Lesson 3

    Lesson 2 & 3 Video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlL-Id52M70

    Lesson 4: 

    In Lesson 4, the children were given handouts describing and showing photographs of the various parts of California native trees. They were then asked to make models of a tree or trees to create a scene that could be incorporated in the Schoolyard Design.

    Lesson 4

    Lesson 5:

    In Lesson 5, the students helped assemble a scaled model of their school grounds. They then identified different areas on the model.

    Lesson 5

    Lesson 6:

    In Lesson 6, the children placed their own creations on the school model they had built in lesson 5. They then used peg people to create a narrative of how they would move through the newly created school yard where trees were almost as numerous as the students.

    Lesson 6

  2. How did you use and/or modify Earthwatch’s Resilient Trees protocol in your hands-on activity to measure trees? 

    The lessons introduced children to the idea of having a natural schoolyard, helped them identify trees on the school grounds, get familiar with California trees and helped them understand where trees were needed on the schoolyard. They also designed and made conceptual models of trees and tree groves and environments for the schoolyard.

  3. What were the best positive outcomes for your students as a result of these urban forestry lesson plans?The best outcome was that there was an increased awareness amongst the students and the larger school community about creating a more inspiring outdoor environment than is currently seen in the form of asphalt grounds in a majority of schools around the city and country.
  4. What did your students have the most fun doing? 

    They had the most fun making models of individual areas of the schoolyard with elements that they had designed including the model trees.

  5. What were some challenges you faced in implementing these lesson plans? Do you have any best practices or techniques you used to overcome these challenges? 

    I feel that the club the activities could have been simplified because of the difference in age groups from Grade 1 to 6. In the future, I would work with a smaller group of students with a lesser age range.

  6. What advice do you have for fellow educators wanting to implement a similar lesson plan?  Any recommendations for facilitation techniques?In our club we had a series of activities planned for every class but realized that it may have been better to focus on one that really got the children’s attention and run with it rather than trying to cover all the topics.
  7. Do you personally plan to share this with/recommend these activities to other educators? 

    Yes. It got the students interested in landscaping, in the outdoors, in their school grounds and ways to turn it back to a more natural setting. In that sense, it is a good place to start in getting students more spatially aware about their outdoor environment and interested in urban forestry.

  8. If other educators have questions about how you implemented your lesson plans, may they contact you? 

    Yes. They can contact me at anupama@wyotaworkshop.com


Learning from the Trees

What do trees have to teach us?  For the ten students in Erica Marlaine’s class at Chase Elementary School, quite a bit!  A 2016-17 microgrant awardee and Earthwatch TeachEarth alum, Erica was challenged to create lesson plans around urban forestry in the hopes of engaging her students, all with special needs, in science:

Excited girl

  1. Where did the lesson activities take place, and who participated?:
    Ten students at Chase Street Elementary School (Los Angeles Unified School District), ages 3-4, all with special needs.
  2. What urban forestry concepts did you teach in the classroom?I taught them how to differentiate different tree species.  We talked about deciduous versus evergreen, the leaf shapes of a variety of trees, what trees need to survive, the importance of being kind and gentle with trees, what they liked about trees, who lived in the trees at school, and in other places, and how the students felt about the areas of school where there were trees versus the areas without trees. A variety of methods were used. We looked at different types of trees in books and online, and at the photos from the Operation Resilient Tree packet.  Then almost daily, we walked around the school and talked about the different types of trees and which (Chinese Pistache) were on the Resilient Tree list.  Our school borders a park, and while we are not permitted to go to the park, we can still see and collect leaves and acorns from the many trees that are on the border fence.
  3. What hands-on activities did you have your students perform to reinforce these concepts?They collected leaves from various trees at school (and we brought in others from home) and observed them under our microscope (purchased with the microgrant funds).Leaf Viewer
    I created a project where 4 types of leaves were stapled on the left side of a paper and they had to sort through a pile of leaves to find the matching ones and attach them on the right. These were the same leaves they had previously observed under the microscope. This not only taught about trees but age appropriate concepts of similarities and differences, matching, and fine motor  skills.Gluing leaves
    Interested in using this lesson plan?  Download it here:  Lesson Plan- Trees-Matching Lesson

    Leaves were also used to teach pre-math concepts such as one to one correspondence and counting.
    WorksheetsTree diagram

    A chart was created with the students, and hung on the main board for all to see. The terms (leaves, twigs, branches, trunk, bark and roots) were reviewed and discussed quite often.  They were also used in a song that we sang and acted out, “Leaves, Branches, Trunk and Roots,” sung to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”

    In addition, we did our best to measure trees, including Chinese Pistache trees, on our campus using the dual sided diameter tape measure provided by Earthwatch.   They wrote down numbers as best as they could, and compared how many times the tape measure went around a tree that was big versus small.

    Big and small

    Unfortunately, Winter Break started in mid-December and it has been raining almost non-stop since school began again on January 9th, so we were not able to complete much data collection at this time.  I still plan to invite parents and students to come measure and collect data together, but it will have to be during the next group of trees (phase 3.0).

    Planting seeds Root viewer Rootviewer looking

    Another project involving a microgrant item was planting radishes, onions, and carrots in our root view container.  First the students added water to the soil pellets and mixed and chopped until the pellets became usable soil.   Then they spooned their soil into the planter, put in a few seeds, spooned in some more soil, and then we watered it.  It began to grow very quickly.  They are able to observe not just the above-ground growth but the roots as well.  Since they all enjoy watering it, I decided to have them water it using eye droppers.  They use the droppers to absorb water from a bowl, and then carefully move the dropper and squeeze it so that the water comes out onto the plant.  This teaches fine motor skills as well as hand-eye coordination, especially since the root view planter is narrow.

    Interested in using this lesson plan?  Download it here:  Lesson Plan – Planting in Root View Container

  4. How did you use and/or modify Earthwatch’s Resilient Trees protocol in your hands-on activity to measure trees?

    Without parent participation, the only thing we have been able to do as far as data collection is measure trunk diameter, and talk about which tree is bigger and how that corresponds to a bigger number. They are in preschool, so the idea that 10 is a bigger number than 5, and represents more, is something they are still learning.   We did a lot with tree/leaf identification, and deciduous versus evergreen, and talked a lot about Chinese Pistache trees as there are many on our school campus.

  5. What were the best positive outcomes for your students as a result of these urban forestry lesson plans?

    There seems to be an increased excitement/interest level about trees and plants.  Every morning they want to see how the plants in the root view container are doing, and they want to water them.  They talk about trees as we walk around the campus, wondering why some have no leaves, or commenting about the color and shape of the leaves.

  6. What did your students have the most fun doing?

    They enjoyed measuring trees with the measuring tape, or more accurately, seeing how many times the tape measure went around each tree. They loved looking at tree parts under the microscope. They also loved the root view planting kit. It came with soil pellets so they had to add water and mix them up to “create” the soil.  They also enjoyed watering the plants in the root viewer, especially with eye droppers.  I was also surprised what a hit the leaf matching activity was. They enjoyed sorting through the box to find the matching leaves, and gluing them onto their paper.
    Microscope_GirlRecording (1)Microscope_Boy

  1. What were some challenges you faced in implementing these lesson plans? Do you have any best practices or techniques you used to overcome these challenges?

    Helping dbh
    Challenges arose out of the fact that half of my students are very young (just turned 3) and many of them have autism.  Most are speech delayed. Some are new to school; others have been with me for 1.5 years already.  In order to provide differentiated instruction, I follow the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and provide multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression.  Learners differ in how they understand and learn things, and in how they are able to express what they know. I therefore seek to provide them with information in a variety of ways:  with my voice, visuals, hands-on, experiential activities, song, dance, or whatever engages them.   I also understand that some may demonstrate what they have learned with words while others will create a piece of art, or build something with Legos, or act it out using puppets. I will repeat instructions as needed, and include visual step-by-step instructions for those who need that.   I also modify lessons as needed based on each child’s abilities or challenges.  For example, some students could rummage through a box of leaves and find the matching one.  A few needed to be shown just two different leaves to start. The whole box would have been overwhelming for them to start with.
  2. What advice do you have for fellow educators wanting to implement a similar lesson plan?  Any recommendations for facilitation techniques?

    I have very young students (age 3-4), so these suggestions may fit those with young students more. The microscope we got has a large viewing screen.  It can also be attached via USB and the image can be projected. This is much better than trying to get young students to look through an eye piece as one does when using a standard microscope.  It also allows for group work as several students can see the image at once.  Calling them scientists and giving them scientist “tools” such as safety goggles and eye droppers makes each activity feel more important.  If you are somewhere with bad weather, bring the tree materials into the classroom for the students to observe and use in projects, and try planting indoors.   It is too early to tell if we will actually harvest radishes, carrots, and onions, but the plants are growing quite well indoors.

  3. Do you personally plan to share this with/recommend these activities to other educators?

    I already have.  We meet a few times a month as a grade level (which includes 2 special education pre-K classes, one general education preschool class, and a transitional kindergarten class).  We all discuss what we are doing and share projects we have done or are planning to do. We do not have to do the same things, but we often get ideas from each other and collaborate on how to extend a lesson or tailor it to fit the needs and abilities of the individual students in our classrooms.  I have also spoken to one of the kindergarten teachers about planting around school, and she is interested in having her class join us.  Even though her students are only in kindergarten, they seem much older than my students, and can act as great peer models and “planting buddies.”

  4. If other educators have questions about how you implemented your lesson plans, may they contact you?

    Absolutely.  Erica Marlaine, emarlaine@earthlink.net



Students in Los Angeles Use Science to Design a Better Playground

By Lily Reynolds

What would playgrounds look like if preschoolers designed them? At a school in northeast Los Angeles, students are creating their own playground using outdoor science education. The “Afterschool Schoolyard Design Club” is led by parent Anupama Mann who is a designer and architect. Mann and students at Rockdale Elementary meet afterschool to enhance their existing playground in a hot, dry climate. Last year students started identifying goals for their playground, and a top priority was shaded play areas. The Club wanted to find out which trees would provide the most benefits and have the best chance of thriving in a region experiencing extreme drought.

Students of Rockdale Elementary School meet for the Afterschool Schoolyard Design Club.
Students of Rockdale Elementary School meet for the Afterschool Schoolyard Design Club. (Photo: Anupama Mann)

The “Afterschool Schoolyard Design Club” is one of four Earthwatch Institute Micro-grant awardees for 2016. The Micro-grant program set out to find – and fund – new lesson plans that would teach students about trees, urban resiliency, and climate change.  Earthwatch created the Micro-grant to support students’ engagement with nature because it is an increasingly rare but super important part of childhood development and learning. Earthwatch Institute has found that educators have a strong appetite for citizen science activities, but they need to tie it back to the curriculum they are teaching. Therefore, the Micro-grant requires classroom techniques that involve hands-on activities and meet state standards.

By making observations in the schoolyard, students learn new science concepts and employ problem solving in the field.
By making observations in the schoolyard, students learn new science concepts and employ problem solving in the field. (Photo: Anupama Mann)

For the Rockdale Elementary Afterschool Schoolyard Design Club, the Earthwatch Institute Micro-grant is funding a series of activities to “identify the trees that we would like to plant on the site by studying their morphology, placement on the site, growth patterns, shade patterns, coexisting plants and organisms”, says Mann. Using the playground as their laboratory, the curriculum aims to “get children interested in how trees can play a role in in improving existing asphalt school grounds, providing shade, fruits and flowers, attracting wildlife and birds”.

Back in the classroom, students take what they’ve observed about tree species attributes and make drawings and models.
Back in the classroom, students take what they’ve observed about tree species attributes and make drawings and models. (Photo: Anupama Mann)

One of the first tasks for club members is to observe trees on school grounds “as a way for them to understand trees suitable to the climate they are in, seasonal changes and how an increase in the tree cover impacts the microclimate and microclimate”. The students will gather data to understand the placement of the trees on the existing asphalt playground depending on their suitability to how the area around and below is going to be used.

The final built model will be a visual and physical resource for the entire school.
The final built model will be a visual and physical resource for the entire school. (Photo: Anupama Mann)

By investing in the development of curricula, Earthwatch Institute is making it easier for teachers and after school leaders to bring their students outdoors to do science. Over the next few months, look for more blog entries about Rockdale Elementary students and other Micro-grant awardees in the LA region. Ultimately, Earthwatch is hoping the approaches educators are using in their new curricula can be shared with other schools.

Students working together on the urban tree design for their playground.
Students working together on the urban tree design for their playground. (Photo: Anupama Mann)

Please send any examples or ideas for how we can work with schools and students on planting the right tree in the right place.  Also, share your ideas with us about how best Earthwatch Institute can disseminate these results and continue to support teachers and students in the LA region in science education and urban forestry.

Earthwatch Institute is helping classrooms discover how diversity of trees can be a way to harness nature’s resiliency.

Functional Diversity of Trees in Urban Settings

By Julie Ripplinger, PhD, Postdoctoral Researcher


I am a Postdoctoral Researcher at University California-Riverside in the Jenerette Lab studying urban biodiversity and human outcomes. My research interests include traditional ecological research and the effects of human activities on ecological dynamics. Before working at UCR, I did my PhD at Arizona State University on how people’s decisions under a variety of pressures (like droughts, recession, and peer pressure) can change biodiversity patterns in cities. I have also studied the effects of historic legacies and land use on tropical dry forests and sagebrush steppe ecological communities.

Conceptual framework for my PhD research. Urban plant biodiversity is a product of biophysical processes (e.g. climate, substrate, biotic interactions), disturbance (e.g. biophysical and socioeconomic), and human management.

Now working at UCR, my research with Earthwatch Institute builds on my previous research and focuses on the functional diversity of trees in urban settings. I am pleased to say that I’m standing on the shoulders of countless citizen scientists who spent their precious volunteer time measuring tree traits and collecting leaf samples in the greater Los Angeles region. And I have my University of California-Riverside predecessors to thank for this opportunity, because they had the foresight to spark a collaboration with Earthwatch and NASA.

ripplinger2 ripplinger3

A relatively simple idea lies at the core of this study – that cities provide a different environment for trees than they’d experience in their native habitat, and just like in non-urban ecosystems, we expect those differences to be detectable in characteristics of urban trees. I am focusing specifically on leaf characteristics that are known to be tied to the environment a tree is growing in. For this study we are testing our idea by comparing certain measurable characteristics of several tree species found throughout the greater LA metropolitan region across a gradient of climate and urbanization. For this part of the collaboration, Earthwatch citizen scientists surveyed trees from parks near the coast all the way out to the desert parks around Palm Springs, encompassing 105 distinct tree species at 61 city and regional parks.

Earthwatch citizen scientists located, measured, and collected leaf samples from hundreds of trees throughout the greater Los Angeles region. These trees spanned from the Coastal Zone near Long Beach, thru the Central Zone and Inland Empire, and out to the Desert Zone near Palm Springs. What a monumental effort!

By measuring leaf characteristics like specific leaf area and nitrogen per leaf mass (leaf N) content, we will begin to understand how urban forests are functioning and the role that climate and urbanization play. Specific leaf area (SLA) is the ratio of leaf area to dry leaf mass, and it tells us how quickly a tree is growing and its photosynthetic rates. A slow-growing tree will have thicker leaves and lower SLA than a tree that’s growing quickly. A quick-growing tree will have thin leaves with a large amount of leaf N — signs of its high photosynthetic ability. So, measuring leaf N tells us even more about a tree’s growth strategies and photosynthetic abilities. As a general rule, photosynthesis rates decrease linearly with leaf N and increase linearly with SLA.

Leaf characteristics are affected by many things, including the environment the tree is growing in.

Our preliminary results show that urban trees are responding to the climate gradient similarly to what we’d expect, but not exactly so. For the most part, specific leaf area is decreasing from the Coastal zone to the Desert zone, but the Central zone actually has the highest SLA on average. So photosynthetic rates decrease as we move from the coast to the desert, but why is it higher in the central zone than along the coast? One of the things we’ll be looking at in the near future is how that differs by species. If you think about it, the different tree species in cities come from all over the world, and likely adapted to wetter or drier or hot or cold climates, so we’d expect the different species to behave differently from each other as they respond to their urban setting. These differences reflect climate filtering like an inability to tolerate freezing or the filtering of human decisions about how much they’re willing or able to water trees in park landscapes, and they will be the focus of this study as it progresses. The variations in climate and in tree management activities allows many species to persist in the greater Los Angeles region, and I will be exploring this and other related ideas with my Earthwatch and UC Riverside collaborators as these projects progress. Feel free to contact me at the Jenerette Lab if you have any questions!

Not all trees are created equal: a review of the latest scientific research

falltreeExtreme weather, like “extreme” sports is something best avoided unless one is prepared and willing to live on the edge. Yet, cities around the world are trying to prepare for the effects of extreme weather. The urban environment of the future promises to be hotter, drier, and be marked by more extreme weather events.  One promising adaptation strategy for cities is increasing the number of healthy trees.  Cities that plant and grow more trees stand to gain resilience in the face of climate change.

The beneficial ‘services’ that trees provide our cities include: cooling our homes and buildings with shade, filtering storm water, capturing carbon we produce, and also beautifying our neighborhoods.  However, not all trees are created equal and each species may be better suited for different urban environments and climates.

Southern California is an especially interesting region for climate change research because the metropolitan areas span three ecosystem types and it’s the second largest metropolitan area in the United States.  Because trees in urbanized centers such as greater Los Angeles are planted by the people who live there, it is important to get inside the psyche of residents to figure out why they choose to plant certain tree species instead of others.

A team of scientists led by Meghan Avolio and including Darrel Jenerette from University California Riverside studied the Los Angeles region with one particular question in mind; what drives peoples’ preferences for different species and how do these preferences align with the benefits offered by different tree species.  For example, would people living in hottest parts of Los Angeles be more likely to choose trees that offer shade?  The researchers also were interested in whether things like people’s age, gender, and income are related to their preferences of tree types. (See the full article here.)

Image from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Do you really know why you love that tree?  (Image from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein)

The researchers analyzed 1,029 household surveys across Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties.  The two most important attributes of trees that people consistently valued were whether trees provided shade and provided showy flowers (i.e. beauty). The scientists also found people living in hotter parts of Los Angeles (away from the coast) were more likely to value shade trees than those located in cooler regions.  Moreover, people living in drier regions were more concerned about tree water use than people living in areas with higher rainfall. Interestingly, whether the local environment was naturally treed or not also had an effect on people’s perceptions of the value of trees. People that were surrounded by desert were less likely to identify positive effects of trees in urban environments compared with people located in naturally forested areas. Several factors such as levels of education, wealth, gender and age all influenced people’s perceptions of trees.  For example, older residents were more likely to be concerned with the cost of maintenance and women were more likely to associate trees with positive attributes in urban environments than men.

Thanks to this study, for the first time we understand that both the climate where people live and their socioeconomic attributes affect their opinions of different tree characteristics.   Moreover, when combined with another study led by Avolio and her collaborators (see link), we know that people’s preferences for trees often coincides with the trees in their yards.  For example, people who identify shade trees as important live in neighborhoods with greater proportion of shade trees. However, this is not true for all socio-economic groups. While people from lower income neighborhoods have strong preferences for fruit-bearing trees, this preference does not translate into more fruit-bearing trees in their neighborhoods. This may be due to the restricted economics of this group that prevents them enacting their preference.

Avolio and her collaborators have shown how people are sensitive to what is happening in the environment where they live.  This is a good sign when it comes to the future of urban forests, because it means that people consider tree attributes in the context of their neighborhood when planting trees.

Major metropolitan regions such as Los Angeles need to prepare for climate change and planting trees is one good strategy.  Research like this can help managers and planners in cities like Los Angeles make better decisions about which trees need to be planted in each neighborhood to help adapt to a drier and hotter future.

“Understanding preferences for tree attributes: the relative effect of socio-economic and local environmental factors” by Avolio, M. et al., was published in Urban Ecosystems, March 2015, Vol 18 Iss 1 pp 73-86.