“Who knows the anther?” and other ecological teaching techniques

by Tyler Knapp

July 2019

Many people don’t realize that IAE has a Southwest Office in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in addition to the main office in Corvallis, Oregon. For the past three years, IAE Southwest has offered a week-long summer conservation and botany training program for teens called Forest Bound. This program spans several weeks, and its week-long sessions in the Santa Fe and Cibola National Forests are free for middle through high schoolers, thanks to the support of the U.S. Forest Service Southwest Region, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Native Plant Society of New Mexico. This spring, I was invited by the IAE Southwest staff to travel to Santa Fe to be the lead instructor for the Forest Bound program in the Santa Fe National Forest. I happily obliged to help out, because I love teaching teens about plants, and I’ve always wanted to visit Santa Fe. 

This presented a bit of a botanical challenge, as I know the plants of Oregon very well, but not the plants of New Mexico. Thankfully, the Santa Fe staff were able to take me on a few plant walks out in the forest and the desert to introduce me to the most common species. In addition, I used my knowledge of plant families and dichotomous keys to identify unknown plants using field guides. When I was teaching the teens about plant family characteristics, I used this experience as an example of why learning about the families is so important and helpful for identification. If you know the field characteristics of the most common plant families, you can travel across the country or the world, and have an easier time introducing yourself to new plants. “Hey, your flower’s banner, wings and keel look really familiar, are you perchance a member of the Fabaceae family?” And the plant might reply, “Why yes I am in the Pea family! Pleased to meet you, my name is Astragalus lentiginosus, but you can just call me Locoweed.” After that, you may wonder if you were the loco one, but as long as you didn’t eat the loco weed you are probably fine (it causes neurological damage, especially among livestock).

Every aspect of the program is hands-on.  Students learn about invasive species, and then practice removing them, as they are here with Southwest Director Melanie Gisler.

A high school student collecting seed from needle and thread grass

High school students making piñon pine salve

Learning plant families by playing "Pin the Leaf"

My plant knowledge is in great part thanks to the jokes, puns, songs, hand motions, and mnemenic devices I learned at the Columbines School of Botanical Studies based in Eugene. I taught many of these memory techniques to the Forest Bound students, in addition to making up new ones (sometimes with student help). For example, one mnemenic from Columbines School is: “You have to be humble with the umbel, since there are so many poisonous plants in the Umbelliferae family.” Umbel is a botanical term for the shape of flowers in the Umbelliferae (aka Apiaceae, or carrot) family, which is appropriate, since they look like little umbrellas. When I would review flower parts with the students I would ask “What are the parts of a stamen called?” and one of them might reply “Filament, and ummmmm…...?” I would then give them a punny hint that I made up: “Come on, one of you has to know the anther to this question!” Eventually one of the students would get the dad-joke pun and answer with a teenage groan or a laugh, “The anther and the filament.” In addition to dumb jokes that make you smarter, we also played several fun plant games, including Forest Bound Jeopardy on the last day, with questions that the students had submitted at the end of each previous day. Jeopardy categories included: “Plants have families too,” “Plants and their allies,” “Parts of a Plant,” and “Mystery.”

A big part of the Forest Bound program is training the future generation of conservation and restoration professionals field techniques that they can put on their resumes and use in future jobs. Besides plant identification, we also trained the students in native seed collection and cleaning through hands-on experience, both in the field and at the IAE seed cleaning studio. The students were taught proper collection of plant specimens by making and painting plant presses, and starting their very own pressed-plant collection. We brought meter quadrats out in the field, and taught vegetation measuring and monitoring. There were also daily “Mentor Chats” where guest speakers from IAE, the BLM, and the USFS provided expert knowledge about seed collection, pollinators, soil science, and GIS. These mentors also offered a glimpse of careers in conservation, as well as opportunities for youth to get involved in science, conservation, and environmental community efforts. Over the last 3 years, IAE Southwest staff have put many hours into adapting lessons from the NM native plant curriculum (From Ponderosa to Prickly Pear, available for purchase here) to create Forest Bound's unique and dynamic curriculum". Students and educators alike have had opportunities to provide feedback that has allowed SW staff to continue to fine tune and make the program the best that it can be

Throughout the week, we covered the edibility and medicinal qualities of various native plants we encountered. We had a “Plant Family Snack” every day, where common edible plants from a family were served while we went over the common family characteristics (carrots for Apiaceae and peanuts for Fabaceae, etc.) On the last day we focused on ethnobotany: we made piñon pine sap salve, and pine nut pancakes with chokecherry jam on top. IAE's Southwest staff had a huge job of not only inventing and adapting many novel lessons and activities to engage these students and all of their senses in caring about plants, and everyone pitched in to make every day a big success - whether the work was co-teaching or working behind the scenes coordinating the many details of the program. It was rewarding to observe how much the students had learned about botany and ecology by the end of the week, but the smiles, laughter, and expressions of “I had so much fun!” were the real reward. I hope to help out with Forest Bound again in the future, and I’d love to start a Forest Bound in Oregon. Stay tuned.

The next 2019 session of Forest Bound will be in the Cibola National Forest outside of Albuquerque New Mexico July 8-12 and led by Sandia High School Biology teacher Jason Roback. Find more information on our website here. Also check out this article about Forest Bound that the Santa Fe Reporter published:

https://www.sfreporter.com/news/2019/05/29/curing-plant-blindness/

Making piñon pine salve

Making and taking home a filled plant press

Plant families learned playing "Pin the Leaf"

Laura Shriver and Ashley Taylor, BLM partners, teach about soil types

Forest bound is for both middle and high school students

Learning unique cienega wetland plants at Lenora Curtin Preserve.

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