An afternoon in late September finds the forest above the Savoy building on the Leysin American School campus abuzz with activity. LAS students withmeasuring tapes, compasses, picks and shovels, scramble over slippery logs on a quest of scientific discovery. Small student groups fan out over the approximately ten hectare span of spruce, fir, and larch trees, honing their investigative ecology skills in anticipation of an upcoming environmental data collection blitz known as the LETS study.
LETS is part of the experiential learning opportunities at LAS that provides hands-on learning experiences with natural science concepts and accurate data collection. Real-world problems are probed beyond the theoretical with the use of citizen science in the classroom. Data collection today is not merely done as a routine exercise. LETS has the added benefit of generating scientific data useful for experts modeling the impact of global climate change on the forests of the Alps with each year’s data offering additional insights to environmental changes. By following a strict set of data collection protocols, the LETS study turns LAS students into citizen scientists.
Flashing forward a few days to the morning of October 2nd, 2015 finds the halls of the Savoy building packed with students decked-out in jeans, t-shirts, and hiking boots instead of the customary black slacks, white polos, and the occasional sequin-studded sneakers. They are toting meter sticks and sack lunches instead of laptops and side-satchels for a day of learning outside of classroom walls.
The first stop on this busy day is a brief group meeting. Thirteen groups, each consisting of about ten students and two teachers, will travel to thirteen different locations stratified by elevation. At the group meeting, students perform an equipment check and a journal entry, jotting down thoughts in response to the question: Describe the Forests of Leysin. In education lingo this is called ‘activating prior knowledge’ and the idea is that by asking students what they think they are going to see, teachers are creating the mental spaces for students to file away what they actually do see.
Before venturing out into nature, students head to the library and black box theater to be inspired and encouraged by the words of local forest ecology experts, and citizen science enthusiasts Christophe Randin, Anne Delestrade, and Irene Alvarez (see the LAS Alpine Institute Article for biographical details). Students watch, listen, and ask questions as these well respected professional scientists passionately present their case for getting regular citizens involved in scientific data collection. In a field traditionally dominated by men, seeing two successful women scientists on the stage together impresses the young girls in the audience. Christoph Randin’s presentation provides evocative geographical images, these showcase how the forests around Leysin are changing, and are predicted to change in the near future; something the students and staff are easily able to identify.
Fruitful Hours on Location
It is off to the field. A key feature of the LETS study is to examine the differences in the forest at different elevations, with about half of the groups heading uphill toward such familiar sounding places as Prafandaz, Solacyre, and Riandaz, while the other groups head downward to other sites such as Boule de Gomme, La Roulaz, and Pont Drappel. Laden with picks, shovels, and other specialized tools and equipment, the groups raise a few eyebrows from locals as they start out on their treks.
Once on location, students immediately get to work setting up the boundaries of the study site. The goals are to identify and measure the trees, take extensive photographic evidence, and collect a series of soil samples from a 30 X 30 meter plot of forest. The sites had been previously chosen with the criteria that they be similar apart from being at significantly different elevations. All sites have a similar steepness, face the same direction, and have a similar forest structure composition. Starting from a small, permanently fixed orange tag (see image xxxx), students use their geography and problem solving skills to roll out and fasten a series of eight 30 meter strings, no easy task considering the steep and rugged nature of the local mountain forests. This activity divides the the forest floor into nine squares, each 10 X 10 meters. From there smaller teams get to work measuring, photographing, and digging in order to collect their requisite data. Soil samples are taken and fauna are counted and identified. After all scientific field work is done, students return the site to its original condition. As the groups head back to school, the little orange tag is once again the only reminder that this is a special piece of forest. This is, at least, until the arrival of next year’s group, who will continue the job of monitoring the forest for change.
Student Citizen Scientists Return Home
Dirty, tired, but in high spirits, students finish the day in the Savoy building where one more task, requiring more brains than brawn, awaits. They are asked to respond to the question: How can the data you collected today be used to help Leysin adapt to climate change? Science is and always has been a collective endeavor. It works best when thoughts and information are shared, ideas are critiqued and criticized, and from this exchange new understandings emerge. In this day and age, with powerful communication and information crunching machinery, the work of citizen scientists, like our very own students, can and will lead to scientific breakthroughs, the likes of which the world has never known. Through initiatives such as the LETS study, LAS is on the cutting edge of this growing scientific movement with its integration of citizen science in the classroom and beyond.