Wednesday, July 31, 2013

STEAM rolls on through summer

From left Marian Lundquist, Karen Stomberg and Janice Dawe examine a birch tree in the T-field.
Weekly throughout the summer, area teachers have traversed to the UAF T-field to get up close and personal with “their” birch trees in a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) workshop.

Continuing the work of OneTree Alaska, SNRAS Assistant Research Professor Janice Dawe has been leading the science portion of the workshop, while Karen Stomberg, art specialist with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, focuses on the artistic side.

The setting is a research plot of 144 birch trees planted in June 2011. On Thursday evenings, the participants gather to learn, observe and draw. “You spend all these years looking at birch trees and then you say holy cow I’ve watched birch trees grow for 33 years and I never understood,” said Robin Davis, a recently retired teacher.

As a result of the workshop, Davis said she is now looking closer at nature. “I thought I was observant before,” she said. “But I’m much more observant now.”

Stomberg said, “Scientists like Jan look at the whole plant. Documenting that can be overwhelming. A lot of times in field sketching it’s nice to isolate a small portion.” She compared the technique to looking through a view finder or selectively cropping.

The purpose of the training has been to help the teachers learn to record designated birch trees both scientifically and artistically. “This gives them more tools,” Stomberg said. “They have their scientific eyes on and their artistic eyes on.”

Usually participants start out with stiff observational drawings and then loosen up. “It’s like a jazz musician being able to improvise,” she said.

When Dawe is leading the discussion she urges the participants to think about what is different about each tree. “Is it taller? Divide it into thirds so you can compare the growth relationships,” she said.

“It’s all about repeating units. It’s very mathematical.” She encouraged the participants to examine the color of the leaves and the bark, to take note of yellow leaves. “Any of these trees can be a great learning tree.”

Dawe said, “It would be great to have people study why some trees grow and some don’t. You are doing exactly what I had hoped you would do, by looking at your tree’s architecture and thinking about where the tree is putting its energy into new growth." Will the birch forests be able to survive longer growing seasons, Dawe pondered.

The workshop has stressed botany as well as artistic technique in parallel fashion. “This is the integration of art and science,” Dawe said.

“We wanted the teachers to become more knowledgeable about birch trees,” Dawe said. “They get attached. They love their tree. They slow down and observe and become aware of how interesting their environment is.”

The sessions have taken people outside their comfort zones, with the more artistic people having to get comfortable with science and vice versa.

“By stretching they can understand the other way of looking at the same thing," Dawe said. "It increases their understanding of what they are seeing.”

The 10 teachers involved have been using OneTree curriculum in their classrooms. “All of this will make them much more confident,” Dawe said. OneTree will continue its service learning component this school year, which brings graduate students to classrooms and provides lesson plans and experiments. “It’s adaptable to individual classrooms,” Dawe said.

New curriculum this fall will emphasize cold hardiness in birch and competition between seedlings. Classroom experiments will be replicated at UAF, and more campus field trips are likely.

Marian Lundquist, a teacher at Denali Elementary School, said she has enjoyed working and learning outdoors. “I learned much more than I ever imagined, especially about the biology of trees.”

Recommended reading:

Celebrating Birch: The Lore, Art, and Craft of an Ancient Tree
Botanical Drawing in Color
Illustrating Nature: Right-Brain Art in a Left-brain World

Karen Stomberg "zooms in" on a birch leaf.

Stomberg's drawing of a birch leaf.

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