Phenology: Observations Over Time

On September 11th, 2018, 80 students from Mount Elden Middle School’s Alpine Academy took a short walk from their classrooms to learn about the science of phenology and take a baseline observation.


Phenology is the study of seasonal changes in plant and animal life throughout the year. It is the timing of the budding of flowers and the changing of leaves. By gathering data on the timing of such events, scientists can compare these trends over years and decades to assess changes in patterns and make plans for what, if anything, can be done about the impacts of these changes.


When students create a Phenology site and track changes throughout a school year, they are not only contributing to the vast body of data points needed for scientists to draw accurate conclusions, they are building their own capacity for careful, quiet observation. They are connecting to and learning about their place in a new and more detailed way. How many springs have we walked past an oak with breaking leaf buds but never noticed until the trees were fully leafed out? How old were we when we first noticed that grasses have flowers that dangle from the seed heads like chiming country church bells ringing in the fall breeze? Knowing what to look for and where to look, how to slow down and assess the seasonal cycle of our surroundings connects us with nature differently than climbing a mountain or traversing a rock face.


As the class periods of the day went by, each class, one at a time, walked to what would be the class phenology site for the year. We discussed what phenology is big picture, played phenology bingo as we searched for specific phenology signs around us, and looked at the changing Scarlet Gilia and the flowering Blue Grama grass. Once students had a handle on what to look for they found their own personal spot to make their first observation of the year. They were informed that they would return to this spot many times throughout the year, so they should pick something with a variety of things to looks at.


People will protect what they love and they will love what they know. This ‘knowing” of a place is macro and micro. It’s sweeping visitas and the clump of plants growing in the dirt heap behind the school. It’s touching the natural rhythms of nature and feeling when they shift. This is how we cultivate the next generation of public lands stewards. This is how we support students’ academic, social, and emotional growth. This is what education looks like.