The Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan has launched a unique initiative that creates opportunities for school students across the country to be directly involved in a national research project: children across Canada can participate in a free, nation-wide science project to learn the secrets trees can tell about their communities.
The Trans-Canadian Research and Environmental Education (TREE) program involves the Canadian Light Source (CLS) and the Mistik Askiwin Dendrochronology Laboratory (MAD Lab), both located at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), in a study of how the environment affects trembling aspen trees. By combining CLS techniques for chemical analysis and MAD Lab expertise in the science of tree rings, TREE aims to paint a detailed picture of how trembling aspen are doing in communities throughout Canada.
“Trees tell stories,” said Tracy Walker, education programs lead at the CLS, stories students will be able to discover as they gather soil and tree samples, and consider events like floods and fires in their area that are recorded in tree rings. “We think this is a great way to engage teachers and students in natural science research.”
Walker said the TREE program connects with Grade 6-12 curriculums across Canada in a number of subject areas including science, math, social studies, languages and Indigenous perspectives. The students will use equipment provided by the researchers to collect the tree and soil samples, and will build a timeline of climatic and environmental activities in their region.
“Learning about the life and nutrient cycles of trees, nutrients in soil and tracking effects on trees over time provides a wealth of student learning opportunities,” she said.
From a scientific perspective, the samples and data collected by students will give CLS scientists and the MAD Lab team the geographic diversity needed to answer a number of questions about trembling aspen. The researchers hope to learn what toxicants are present in soil where the trees grow, how much contamination the trees can tolerate, whether location influences the accumulation of toxicants, and if these factors relate to climatic or human events in the timespan of the tree.
“A partnership like this, where citizen science involves students, offers a huge benefit to my research in both the geographic expansion of where I can collect samples and in the time that it saves my team by being in many places at once,” said Dr. Colin Laroque (PhD). He is Director of the MAD Lab team and a faculty member with the USask College of Agriculture and Bioresources, College of Arts and Science and School of Environment and Sustainability.
“With the TREE program, Colin will be able to access samples from across the country that he wouldn’t have been able to collect on his own,” Walker said. “And because this is an ongoing project, interested teachers can connect with us any time that works for them.”
She added the data and findings will be shared with students and will be available to the public online. This project is made possible by funding from the CLS, USask, and NSERC PromoScience.