Science teacher Sarah Wright was biking up north and noticing signs identifying plants on the trails when she realized she had stumbled upon the ideal project for her students at Fitchburg’s Eagle School.
The signs resonated with Wright, who had wanted to give her students a way to share information about the trees on the school grounds. The resulting project produced 12 signs identifying trees or aspects of them, and students got to see its completion when they took part in a scavenger hunt last week.
“I was really excited to see them, and they turned out really well,” said fifth-grader Isabel Roang, who worked on the sign for a red maple.
Before Wright considered the signs, some of her previous students had started working on a field guide. But she realized the information would be more accessible if it was on signs, rather than figuring out how to make a guide available.
Wright, who has a master’s in botany, said the project was a natural fit for the fifth-grade curriculum that includes a leaf unit in which students collect, mount and label different species.
“I really want kids to know what an oak savanna is and what it would have looked like here,” she said.
“I am really interested in giving kids different ways to show what they learned.”
Some of the signs are near the sidewalk so people walking by can read them.
In addition to giving students a way to apply what they have learned and find a way to connect to the community, Wright likes to give students choices. Some chose to work on the signs, which required research and writing text and drawing. Others chose to make a map of where the signs are placed on the Trees of Eagle Walking Trail.
“I just generally like maps,” fifth-grader Tilly Niemann said about choosing to make one.
Some of the funding for the project came from a grant from the Go Outside Fund administered by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.
Don Settergren, a parent of a fifth-grader, cut lengths of aluminum to make the posts, then heated them to bend them at the right position for reading the signs. Eagle School science teacher John Buchmelter then attached signs to the posts, and Wright’s family helped install them in the ground.
In addition to identifying trees through the characteristics of features such as leaves, fruit and bark, one sign talks about why leaves change color in the fall, and another is about oak savanna restoration.
“I don’t really like the fact that there is no more oak savanna. It’s not good,” said fifth-grader Riley O’Donohoe.
One sign appears backward because it was positioned to identify European buckthorn in a wooded area across the street from the school.
“It is a very, very invasive species. It is all over the woods,” said fifth-grader Vivian Settergren, who worked on the sign identifying it. “It can take over your forest and it also produces very weird berries that make birds get sick and have diarrhea.”
Wright has some other ideas for the future. She hopes to get permission to put signage in the wooded property across the street from the school. She also hopes to somehow acknowledge that the school yard is on Ho Chunk land and to address the role of the Native Americans in maintaining oak savannas, which is what would have stood where the school is now.
“I am really interested in kids learning more about their ecosystems,” Wright said. “They felt proud and excited (when they saw the signs).”