September 17, 2016

Here we go!

This is certainly a belated post, delayed because we’ve been working hard nonstop over the past several weeks to make sure that Plant STEM for K-12 Education began smoothly and hit the ground running when school started on September 6, 2016. Upon receiving our Biology Learning Objectives, Outreach Materials & Education (BLOOME) Grant from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), we began installing our native plant and carnivorous plant gardens at Riverside School and Johnson Park School, both in Princeton, NJ. These two will serve as models for what the other schools included in our grant might do, as well as our initial “testing ground” for projects that will be aligned with the 12 Principles of Plant Biology and Next Generation Science Standards.


Johnson Park School’s native plant courtyard at the very beginning (August 2016), when we started to move in the first plants. From left to right are arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentaum), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia–a “near native” found primarily in woodlands farther south), black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), and bee balm (Monadra media).


Johnson Park School’s native plant courtyard as we got moving along. This is from the opposite angle from the photo above, and moving clockwise from left, the species are red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), arrowood viburnum (Viburnum dentaum), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), black eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), blazing star (Liatris spicata), and garden phlox (Phlox paniculata).


Dr. Robert Ginsberg, the beloved principal of Johnson Park School, worked hard to make sure our plants stayed well-watered over a very dry August and September. Thank you so much, Dr. G!


A rare shot of Mark Eastburn, principal investigator of Plant STEM for K-12 Education, at Johnson Park School on a hot August day!

The vision for our native plant courtyards is that they may allow students in grades K-12 to study and interact with plant species that are so often ignored by traditional science curricula, not to mention landscaping projects and home gardening. Our hope is that these locations might serve as community models for how natural areas can be designed and maintained for the benefit of local wildlife–not only for the plants and people, but also pollinators, caterpillars, amphibians, and, of course, turtles!


One of Johnson Park School’s resident Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina), who will now have extra space to roam!


We even had another native reptile cruise through Johnson Park School’s native plant garden this summer! This is an Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis).


Eastern box turtles continue to be a regular feature in the Riverside School courtyard, now home to our native plant garden. At right can be seen some freshly-planted Heuchera americana, or American alumroot, where previously there had only been invasive lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor).

As mentioned above, another feature of these gardens are containers with carnivorous plants. We planted native purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea), spoonleaf sundew plants (Drosera intermedia) and the “near-native” yellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava) and, of course, Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula). Not surprisingly, these have quickly become the most popular inhabitants of our gardens, and students certainly enjoy getting close (but maybe not too close) to these plants!


Riverside School students examine the modified leaves of Sarracenia flava, the yellow pitcher plant.


Few students could resist touching the Venus flytraps, of course!

During the first two weeks of school, students at both Riverside School and Johnson Park School have been making observations of native plants, learning to distinguish between them, and investigating their importance for other native species. In addition to the box turtles and garter snake mentioned above, we have also started to find birds and pollinators in our gardens, including goldfinch and monarch butterflies!


Riverside students thrill over the sighting of a monarch butterfly on a stand of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata).


A closer, but not very clear, image of our butterfly friend.


We also found a saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea) on New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), and made sure that everyone kept their distance, since these caterpillars have venomous spines.

In coming weeks, we will start connecting our courtyards with interactive Bluetooth beacons, which will stream information to mobile devices about our plants. As with every aspect of this program, students will be heavily involved in the creation and design of all content. We will also install wireless temperature gauges throughout our gardens, which will allow us to collect data on air, soil, and water temperatures over the course of this year. The data will help us understand the conditions under which native species flower, seed, grow, and enter dormancy at different times throughout the year. Everyone is looking forward to all we can accomplish, especially those student who want to make plant-themed “apps.”

We are extremely grateful to the American Society of Plant Biologists and Princeton Public Schools for all of their support!

One Comment on “Here we go!

September 17, 2016 at 8:56 pm

Keep up the good work ! It’d be cool to do something like that here in Maryland. I’ll follow your example.


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