Eagle Rock’s Citizen Scientists Monitoring Our Changing Environment

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For the first five weeks of this trimester, six Eagle Rock School students have partnered with staff at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) for the launch of its citizen science initiative — Lily Lake Phenology.

Phenology, which is vital to many aspects of society, is the study of the timing of biological life cycles (nature’s calendar, if you will). Things like budding leaves, blooming flowers, or migration of animal species. So, why should high school students care about any of this? Because long- and short-term changes in areas such as animal migration and flowering are related to our weather and climate patterns. With more information about how plants are reacting to the climate, national park staff can make informed decisions on how to manage species that might be at risk.

At the first data collection site, Eagle Rock School student Hendrick looks for catkins and leaf buds on a willow with RMNP Superintendent, Darla Sidles.

Sound like a worthwhile project? Of course, it is. Especially when you consider that seasonal changes in plants and animals happen quickly and require sustained and frequent observation to monitor.

That’s where our students, serving in the role of citizen scientists come into the picture. For two days each week, students in our Phenology of Lily Lake class take a trip up to the 17-acre lake to collect data using a web application built by national park staffers. Lily Lake is located at the headwaters of Fish Creek, which flows five miles into Lake Estes.

Students April and Tallie look for salamanders with Lead Ranger at RMNP, Mark Pita.

The survey encompasses eight stops around the main trail circumnavigating the lake, with questions to be answered about the presence and state of species of interest to the park at each stop along the way. Students log their observations using mobile devices and also record any other notable observations in field journals, where they write, draw, and describe their findings.

In order to support our learning in the field, two more days each week are spent indoors and are devoted to building context for our data. This includes a study of climate change and ecosystem ecology — and the skills necessary to collect that data — field journaling, plant identification, and understanding plant reproduction.

Student Amr and park ranger Nancy work to identify a plant they found on the side of the trail at Lily Lake.

Earlier this month, students had the rare opportunity to guide members of the Rocky Mountain National Park leadership team through their data collection. To prepare, the class discussed science communication and its importance, and prepared ‘elevator pitches’ about our citizen science project. Students paired off with members of the leadership team and had a full afternoon of exchanging questions, exploring the lake, and learning from one another.

Students April and Tallie discuss citizen science and park law enforcement with lead ranger Mark Pita.

Just in the past four weeks, we’ve already observed many of the signs of changing seasons. Starting in the falling snow and hail, with bare trees and snow on the ground, we’ve progressed to discoveries of salamanders, catkins, and three types of wildflowers in bloom.

One of the stops on the survey asks Eagle Rock School students to make observations about the visibility and snow cover of Long’s Peak, one of the best-known 14,000-foot peaks around Estes Park.

It’s been an eye-opening honor to be given the opportunity to observe and appreciate the natural systems that surround us. We believe that the data we collect will help the park staff better understand and protect this unique and beautiful place.

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About the AuthorKira Faller is the Interim Math Instructional Specialist at Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colo. Kira, who studied biology at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., was previously Eagle Rock’s 2016/2017 Public Allies Teaching Fellow in World Languages.

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