The Campus Tree Project

Alumni often return to campus to visit a favorite professor or memorable space. Because of one outdoor biology research project, some return to visit the trees.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, G’16, New Media Strategist

August 14, 2018 | 8:20 a.m.

Students in BIO 126/127 determine tree height using a clinometer and tree girth using a Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) tape.

Students in BIO 126/127 determine tree height using a clinometer and tree girth using a Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) tape.

Spring in Minnesota brings an irresistible urge to get outdoors and enjoy the warmer weather. Students relax in hammocks between dorms, Frisbees fly through Kresge Courtyard, and the smells of cookouts waft through campus with surprising regularity.

For students in Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse’s Integrative Biology and Global Health (BIO 126/127) course, spring brings another reason to get outdoors: bud burst, the phenological phase where trees come out of dormancy and begin to produce foliage. So students headed outside—clinometers and measuring tapes in hand—to time and measure the seasonal changes on a selection of campus trees.

Last spring, they had two objectives. One was to design and test a method to gather data on the flower and leaf bud burst—and subsequent leaf emergence—of three campus trees. The second was to compare their findings to similar data from 2014 and 2016 to determine whether changes in phenology were evidence of an earlier spring. 

Students in BIO 126/127

Professor Sara Wyse (left) and her BIO 126/127 students observe phenological phases of "their" trees over time on Bethel's campus

Wyse worked with Tammy Long, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology at Michigan State University, to develop the methodology as part of her doctoral research. It was published in “A Season for Inquiry: Investigating Phenology in Local Campus Trees,” a 2012 article in Science Magazine that also won the magazine’s award for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI). The article makes a case for why studying trees is a simple and cost-effective way for students to explore the environmental factors that impact the campuses around them. 

Without leaving campus or needing expensive equipment or technologies, students engage with large and commanding living organisms whose seasonal cycles illustrate a surprising number of wider scientific phenomena. They also submit findings to Project Budburst—an open-source, national project aimed at studying the effects of climate change—something that aligns their work with that of the larger science community.

“The project is neat because rarely do students get to design and test out a methodology,” Wyse explains. “Usually, students are given methods to execute. This process requires innovation, creativity, and troubleshooting. You’ll hear, ‘My tree is taller than I thought’ or ‘The branch we were studying was pruned off,’ and it's fun to see the students take ownership of ‘their trees.’”

Wyse adds that because students have taken part in the project for several years now, students from prior course sections remember their trees and report being more aware of phenology events (“phenophases”) after completing the project.

Phenologic studies have relatively few logistical constraints compared with many topics in biology...documenting phenological patterns can be a straightforward and cost-effective strategy for engaging students in the science of observation with little need for additional equipment or supplies.

— Long and Wyse

Bethel’s campus is made up of 245 acres—mostly woods—so trees play a significant role in the look and feel of campus. They also play a growing part in students’ education. Goats recently moved to campus as a step toward sustainably managing invasive buckthorn—and students are actively involved in researching their impact on the buckthorn population and wider ecosystem.

Others on campus have manually removed buckthorn, replacing it with native plants. Students in previous semesters of the BIO 126/127 class have studied the potential to ferment buckthorn for biofuel. They distilled the plant into ethanol and launched a bottle rocket with it—asking which parts of the plant were most effective for distillation, whether there was an optimal window to harvest or process the plant, and whether there were ethical questions to consider.

“It’s not just about finding out if it’s possible, but also if it’s economically viable. And even if it’s not, is it worth it?” asks Wyse. “We have very diverse perspectives in class, but students have such a willingness to engage with deep questions.”

Students develop and use consistent measurements and methods to observe their trees just as “bud break” is beginning in the spring.

Students develop and use consistent measurements and methods to observe their trees just as “bud break” is beginning in the spring.

Wyse received the 2015 Faculty Excellence Award in Teaching for her innovations, and the Campus Trees Phenology Project is just one way she encourages students to continue learning outside the classroom, begin to notice biological phenomena, and ponder their far-reaching impacts even when class isn’t in session.

“We’re in Arden Hills. Trees are the very namesake of our area,” adds Professor Paula Soneral, who has worked with her own students to monitor tree populations over time. She says these new projects are indicative of not only the Bethel community’s attention to its campus, but a desire to make a positive impact. Understanding tree populations—and considering how humans impact them—is the first step toward that end. “We want to be a leader in the community—to innovate and advocate on behalf of stewardship.”

Study Biology at Bethel

The Department of Biological Sciences offers seven majors and a minor, which make use of Bethel’s cutting-edge facilities, including a human cadaver lab, biotechnology lab, greenhouse and—as is the case with the Campus Trees Phenology Project—245 acres of outdoor laboratories.

Learn more