During a brief break from the torrential rain February brought, 19 teachers from all across the Bay Area joined staff from the California Academy of Sciences for a great day of outdoor ecology. The location: Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, a 1,189-acre preserve dedicated to research and education, located in the eastern foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In the morning, we split up into small groups to explore the amazing diversity of ecosystems available at Jasper Ridge. Each group took charge of one ecosystem — creek, redwoods, oak woodlands, or chaparral — recording both qualitative and quantitative data at their field site. We observed plants, animals, rocks, and soil types; measured the temperature of both the soil and the air; and estimated canopy cover. In some locations, we even saw mortars and pestles, evidence of the Ohlone populations who once inhabited the area.
After plenty of time exploring our ecosystems, we headed back to the field station to share our experiences. Each group shared their data – painting a verbal picture of the environment in which they spent the morning.
Then, we contrasted quantitative data obtained from each field site. It was incredible to see the difference in temperature between ecosystems that were only a few hundred yards apart! What would account for such disparity? Canopy cover certainly plays a role in moderating temperature. Participants also learned how an area with a north-facing slope — which receives less direct sunlight than its south-facing counterpart in the Northern hemisphere, due to the tilt of the Earth on its axis — might be a bit on the cooler, moister side.
In the afternoon, we were joined by Professor Rodolfo Dirzo, an ecologist in Stanford’s Biology Department. In a brief presentation, Rodolfo explained the basics of plant ecology research, and then we headed back outside to conduct our own vegetation transects. By now, you must have noticed our charming Tyvek suits. Although not standard for a field ecologist, we felt it necessary to protect ourselves from the abundance of poison oak in the area. (Even with the attractive neck-to-toe protection, I got a few spots of oak!). I’m not sure whether we look like scientists or like a HAZMAT clean-up crew, but we looked so good we couldn’t help taking many pictures of the group!
We ventured into the forest to learn about the plants that comprise the oak woodland ecosystem. We measured out ten 50-meter transects, crawling on hands and knees to identifyall the woody plants falling within 2 meters of our transects. Back in the classroom, we performed data analysis, working through the statistics to determine the density, frequency and dominance of various species.
Real science. Real fun.
-Jill, Curriculum Developer for the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability