A school curriculum could make New York City seem less grey and more green

Far from being an oxymoron, an educational intervention shows that urban botany can have tremendous value.

Nature is where you find it. Wyner and Doherty found that even in urban New York City, middle school students could learn to identify the street trees around them. It could have a big impact they said in their article in the Journal of Biological Education. “By allowing students to ‘see’ the trees they pass daily, this learning can play a small part in developing their sense of place and counteracting plant blindness and their extinction of experience with the living world.”

Greenery in New York. Photo: Canva

The project was developed as a reaction to a decline in natural history teaching in the public school system. “The pitfalls of everyday observation practice in the pursuit of authentic scientific inquiry became evident during the development phase of a curriculum for middle school students centred on schoolyard observations of birds at classroom feeders…,” wrote Wyner and Doherty in their article. “Students and teachers did not have the necessary disciplinary knowledge to scientifically observe the birds. As a result, they did not know where to begin. Students saw the birds generically, and did not notice key differentiation features. They could not identify bird species or distinguish between individuals, and they and their classroom teachers did not even know where to place feeders in order to successfully attract birds to observe. In addition, they did not have the expertise to understand how to systematically study the birds or to develop research questions to guide their investigations… The problem is that they were observing the birds as everyday observers, not as scientists.”

A team led by Professor Yael Wyner developed a street tree curriculum. They measured knowledge before the intervention, after the fall intervention and after the spring intervention. A variety of schools took part from differing socioeconomic backgrounds.

The study looked at the trees outside the school and the trees students passed on the way to school. Success was mixed. “Unlike for the question, which asked specifically about trees in front of the students’ schools, it was impossible to evaluate the accuracy of student identifications (e.g. ‘Oak, it’s a lot bigger’),” said Wyner and Doherty.

One of the findings in the papers is what Wyner and Doherty call a “folk biology impulse to name living things by their generic species name (oak or maple) rather than their life form name (tree).” So big trees become oaks, because the label tree alone isn’t satisfying. Other examples of ‘tree’ being not enough include the names’ acorn tree’, ‘green tree’ and ‘regular tree’.

The assessments showed that students tended to retain knowledge after undergoing the course. Wyner and Doherty think that unintentional repetition is the key to success. “Student retention of these skills indicates that these concepts are not difficult to retain. Just as knowing what an acorn is is undoubtedly helped by the casual reinforcement of seeing acorns every fall, perhaps the students’ new botanical skills learned in the fall were casually reinforced by the trees the students walked by daily.”

Wyner and Doherty conclude with a plea to engage students at all levels with the trees that surround them. The skills they learn from botanical observation can give them the ability to critically analyse their environment, the authors say. “With disciplinary knowledge of tree structures students become equipped to ask complex scientific questions that frame their observations of tree structures and life cycles.” The idea that understanding the plants around us can stop us from being excluded from part of the experience of the city is a powerful argument for the value of urban botany.

Further reading

Wyner, Y., & Doherty, J. H. (2019). Seeing the trees: what urban middle school students notice about the street trees that surround them. Journal of Biological Education, 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/00219266.2019.1667407