A fern isn’t just a fern???

This year I am working as a TA for a diversity of life course, which introduces second year Undergraduate students to the diversity plants. The course has a lecture component which covers life cycles and related information about the diversity of everything from bacteria to algae to higher plants. The course also has a lab component where students investigate the diversity of those same organisms in more detail, doing things like collecting algae samples from different lakes and comparing them, creating mushroom spore prints, and learning to ID common deciduous trees. However, a newer component in the course, which is offered on a first come first serve basis, is a field trip up to the Queen’s University Biological Station where students get to explore some of those organisms from lab in their natural environment – and, importantly, they get their first taste of fieldwork.

After a short tour of the station, we hiked across a rather precarious boardwalk and the 30 students that attended were split into smaller groups. The groups were provided with a list of either tree, shrub, fern, or herbaceous plant species. Using keys and guidebooks, they searched Cow Island for these species. Once the students had correctly identified the species, they collected a sample of each species and pressed it, so that a proper herbarium mount could be made.

When the students first set off with their lists, you could tell they were a bit intimidated. The students in the fern group pointed out that they didn’t even realize there were different fern species; they thought a fern was just a fern. I was a little worried at first but in no time, the students were on the move and really getting into the task at hand.

The students were allowed to roam freely around the island as their own working group of scientists. They spent the better part of 3 hours in search of all of the plants on their lists – there is something about checklists that is always engaging, no matter what the age you are working with. Towards the end of the afternoon, the fern group was determined to find the final fern on their list: “marsh fern”. They set out onto the boardwalk to look along the marsh edge and about 20 mins later came back with a sample in hand. They approached the resident plant expert Dale and asked “Marsh fern???” “Yes!” Dale responded enthusiastically. They all cheered.

Now some of you might be reading that and thinking, ok, a bunch of young adults got excited to find a fern. That’s pretty lame. But is it? I kind of think that’s pretty awesome actually! The goal of this course is to showcase the diversity of life for students and this field trip was a great way to do that. The complexity and intricacy of the local flora was certainly helpful to these students and brought meaning to the course. Students arrived there thinking a fern was just a fern, and left being able to identify 7 different fern species, among many other skills they developed that day. Two of the students on that trip enjoyed it so much that they actually asked me about more opportunities to volunteer doing fieldwork, and they’ve since been out helping me wrap up my experiments (more stories to come).

As I have said before, teaching experiences in the field can be the best experiences in the field, and this one ranks really high in my books.

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