Early Primary Invasion Scientists: First Graders Engage in Real Research to Help Battle Invasive Plants

By Spellman, Katie V.; Villano, Christine P. | Science and Children, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Early Primary Invasion Scientists: First Graders Engage in Real Research to Help Battle Invasive Plants


Spellman, Katie V., Villano, Christine P., Science and Children


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"We really need to get the government involved," said one student, holding his graph up to USDA scientist Steve Seefeldt. Dr. Steve studies methods to control invasive plants, plants that have been introduced to an area by humans and have potential to spread rapidly and negatively affect ecosystems. The first grader and his classmates had become invasive plant scientists themselves during a yearlong inquiry of invasive plants in Alaska. In this meeting, the students had called on a colleague for advice about their findings. They had discovered something no older scientist had yet uncovered. The invasive plant commonly known as bird vetch (Vicia cracca) could threaten nearby areas that had been burned by recent wildfires. It was time to communicate their science to fellow experts and act.

Up until about 10 years ago, few land managers, educators, or scientists had paid much attention to invasive plants in the far North. However, the rate of invasive plant-spread has rapidly accelerated (Carlson and Shepherd 2007) and is likely influenced by changing climate and increasing human disturbances. Little is known about how invasive plants will act in arctic and subarctic ecosystems around the globe, and research is sorely needed. Who would have thought that early primary students could be capable of rising to help meet this need? We did! Our mother-daughter team--a first-grade teacher and plant ecologist--knew that these students could offer real research to aid in Alaska's battle against invasive plants. We believed that given the right opportunity to observe the ecosystems around them, to interact with scientists, and to use cooperative-learning techniques to accomplish challenging scientific tasks, these young learners could significantly contribute to the knowledge gap on this issue.

Noticing a Problem

On a field trip to a local wildlife refuge, Mrs. Villano and fellow Denali Elementary teacher Deana Martin-Muth's first-grade classes noticed a beautiful purple flower growing all over the fields. Mrs. Villano's daughter, who the children called "Scientist Katie," had come along on the trip as a chaperone.

Scientist Katie told the story of what the refuge was like when she was a little girl. The fields had native wild irises and many types of grasses and wildflowers. There were only a few individual plants of that pretty purple flower, invasive bird vetch, which now covers the fields.What had caused the bird vetch to spread so rapidly? Was the bird vetch the reason there are few wild irises left in the fields? Katie told the kids how science could be used to answer these questions.

Immediately, the kids began collecting seeds in plastic bags (making sure no seeds escaped!) to do their own investigations back in the classroom. As they collected their seeds, they noticed that portions of the field had been burned. To help create optimal wildlife habitat for migrating birds, the refuge often burned portions of the fields. "What if the vetch likes the burned fields?" one student asked. What if ...?

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Field Data Collection

Fueled by the observations the students made at the wildlife refuge, we began to investigate both invasive plants and fire. We took the 50 first graders to a nearby burn area in the Bonanza Creek Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Station's Caribou-Poker Creeks Research Watershed. The students worked with Katie and her fellow LTER ecologists to collect data just like the scientists do. The scientists showed them a real study site in the burn where they have planted different types of trees to see how the forest would regenerate, counted seeds that fell into the burn, and looked at how the permafrost (soil that is frozen all year) changed after the fire.

After the scientists modeled how to collect data and how to make good observations, the first graders made their own observations of burned and unburned forest sites. …

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