Unifying Life: Placing Urban Tree Diversity in an Evolutionary Context

Yael Wyner (PI, ywyner@ccny.cuny.edu , CCNY), Jennifer Doherty (Co-PI, Michigan State), David Jacobs (Co-PI, University of Maryland), John Kress (Co-PI, Smithsonian Institute), Peter Belhumeur (Co-PI, Columbia University)

In this three-year exploratory project, we are developing and testing curricular resources built around Leafsnap, an iPhone plant identification app that appeals to today's technologically advanced students. The project's goal is to study and enhance urban middle school students' interest and engagement with local biodiversity and the patterns of evolution.  By making ever-present, but unobserved plants recognizable to urban students, we seek to transform the way they interact with the diversity of life that is just outside their front door. Furthermore, we seek to help students understand one of Darwin's big ideas, that all of life is related through common ancestry. With these aims in mind, we posed the following research question: In what ways can curricular resources built around Leafsnap (an iPhone plant identification app) improve urban middle-school student learning of local biodiversity and evolution? We hypothesize that these curricular resources will help students to recognize, organize, contextualize, and appreciate urban tree diversity in an evolutionary framework. To look more closely at this hypothesis, we are: 1) developing (through a co-design process) curricular resources for the Leafsnap app to be used in the classrooms of three New York City middle school teachers;2) developing and revising written assessment and survey instruments, as well as student interview protocols to measure students' abilities to notice, organize, and explain tree diversity using an evolutionary framework and student appreciation of urban tree diversity;3) field-testing curricular resources in the classrooms of ten New York City middle school teachers;and 4)  using these results to determine how these resources impact urban middle school student learning of biodiversity and evolutionary patterns. We will also use our results to modify curricular resources for online dissemination. Thus far, in the project's first year, we used the resources in two middle schools in East Harlem. In the project's second year, the resources will be used in the classrooms of ten New York City public middle school teachers. In the project's third year, we will integrate these resources into a life science course for teachers. Also, in the project's third year, we will disseminate the curricular resources through the Leafsnap website to a wider online audience.

Funding: $450,000, NSF Discovery Research