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Into the Woods



WVU biology students teach area elementary students the importance of forest ecosystems


After crossing through a creek and hiking up a hill, Eastwood Elementary School students joined volunteers from the West Virginia University Department of Biology at Elizabeth Woods, a nature preserve owned by the West Virginia Land Trust, to learn about the importance of forests.

“This project gives students a sense of why forests are important,” said Eddie Brzostek, assistant professor of forest ecology and ecosystem modeling. “This is somewhere they can go where they can see wildlife; they can touch a tree, feel a tree. It just gives the students a sense of value to what forests can provide to their daily lives.”

During the two-day activity last June, the Eastwood Elementary students conducted experiments and activities while spending the day outdoors.

“My favorite part of the day was when we tested phosphorus and nitrogen and all of those elements in some water,” said fifth grader William Devault. “It was really fun because we got to interact with the forest and everything around it.”

During the activities, students looked for insects and invertebrate diversity at two different locations. They also learned how scientists measure the number of roots trees make per year using a soil core, which taught the children that trees grow above and below ground.

“Here in West Virginia about 80 percent of the land is covered in forests, so it’s a really cool opportunity for us to reach out to elementary students and teach them about the world around them and how forests serve us in West Virginia,” said Joe Carrara, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biology. “They also learned about how trees grow and how this may change in a changing climate.”

The students measured photosynthesis and tree respiration using high-tech instruments. They observed how different levels of light affect photosynthesis and how water moves through trees, which also affects photosynthesis.

“This is something that we think about all the time as scientists,” said Justin Mathias, another PhD candidate. “We study it, but a person walking through the forest, whether they’re a fifth grader, a college student or an adult, might not think about the fact that a tree is photosynthesizing.” The elementary students also gained insight into how diverse the field can be and the number of opportunities that exist, especially for women in STEM.

“The citizen science day for the Eastwood Elementary fifth graders provided a hands-on scientific experience. They observed and participated in a multiyear experiment being conducted to look at forest response and adaptability to future climate change,” said Nanette Raczka, a biology PhD student. “It also gave them the opportunity to see what the job of a scientist entails, and it was exciting to see that many of the citizen science leaders who participated were women who work in the scientific field, providing a diverse experience for the children involved.”

The researchers in Eddie Brzostek’s lab hope to continue working with Eastwood Elementary and other local schools to teach students the importance of science and the environment in their daily lives.

“This type of event is really important because it not only gives the students an opportunity to explore their natural surroundings, but also introduces them to a diverse group of scientists working at their hometown university,” said Kara Allen, a postdoctoral research associate in Brzostek’s lab. “In the future we hope to hold more scientific outreach events that can help students not only learn about STEM fields, but also about the scientific research occurring pretty much at their doorsteps.”

The West Virginia Land Trust was started at the Elizabeth Woods site in 1995. It is now one of 25 sites managed by the West Virginia Land Trust. Elizabeth Woods was donated by Elizabeth Zimmerman to protect the property and use it for environmental education.

“There’s a whole body of theoretical and applied research that shows pretty clearly that kids have nature deficit disorder, meaning they do not get enough contact with nature,” said Rick Landenberger, a research assistant professor in the WVU Department of Geology and Geography and the science and management specialist with the West Virginia Land Trust. “When they get into the woods, they relax a bit. Their minds open up, and they experience new things. They see things they’ve never seen before, they hear things they’ve never heard before and they learn about the environment.”

Children in the woods

Children learning