U of S-based partnership allows researchers to study tree rings on nationwide scale

February 15, 2020

Tracy Walker, education programs lead at the Canadian Light Source, explains some of the research work being done to a group of students visiting from British Columbia.

The Canadian Light Source has partnered with the Mistik Askîwin Dendrochronology Laboratory in launching a brand new initiative that creates opportunities for Grade 8 students across the country to be directly involved in a national research project to unearth the secrets of trees in their respective communities.

The project is called the Trans-Canadian Research and Environmental Education program or TREE and by using the readily available trembling Aspen trees, the aim is to learn more about the environment by studying the tree rings.

This is seen as an ideal way to combine the expertise of the two state-of-the-art facilities, both located at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

According to Tracy Walker, education programs lead at the CLS, this is a great opportunity to engage teachers and students alike in natural science research since this program connects with the Grades 6 to 12 curriculum across Canada in a number of subject areas including science, math, social studies, languages and Indigenous perspectives.

“I’ve been here 15 years and it has always been my vision to partner science education and science research, and this program offers such rich learning and ties research and education together. I just needed to find the right experiment and get the right people together. This has been two years in the making. Trees tell stories,” she added.

Colin Laroque, director of the MAD Lab, is equally enthusiastic about the prospects, particularly so that by using technology it opens the doors to a much larger audience than he and his colleagues could hope to reach in person.

“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 our team. We can be in many places at once. We couldn’t possibly do this by going to all these communities because of the logistics. This allows us to gather information on a much grander scale.

“By having students from across the country it provides us with all kinds of real-world scenarios. By using FaceTime, for example, it can be very interactive and it will be a perfect litmus test for us to gauge the level of interest in this. I think one of the real advantages will be that for students it will mean that the tree and soil samples will be right from their own backyard, and we can delve into specific local issues. It’s a great way for the students and teachers to explore what is going on in the environment and offers a chance to really dig into some fascinating examples,” Laroque said.

He noted specifically the situation in Humboldt, for example, where a one-time landfill is now the site of a golf course.

The samples and data collected by students will give the CLS and MAD Lab researchers the chance to learn what toxicants are present in the soil where the trees grow, how much contamination the trees can tolerate and whether location of the trees influences the accumulation of toxicants. In the case of the trembling Aspen, they can also be used for remedial purposes by the contaminants they can store.

Walker indicated that this is a perfect example of the expansion in the education programs being offered at the CLS, with double the number of schools utilizing the facility, which is the only one of its kind in the country. As well as Saskatchewan-based students, there has also been increased demand from Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia, including a group from Vancouver visiting on this day.

Not surprisingly, with such worldwide attention being paid to climate change and all that entails, including the publicity garnered by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, Walker said it has been a significant motivator for school-aged children.

“When it comes to our facility, the key part is to make it real and meaningful for the students. If they feel they are in control of their world and that they have a real role to play, then we can help by making this a positive learning experience. It’s up to the teacher to adjust what we can achieve together,” she noted.

“We see it all the time where students feel more confident in their own scientific capabilities by experiencing what we have to offer and it reinforces to them that young people can make a difference,” Walker added.

David Muir, who is a beamline scientist, quite enjoys his interaction with students. “It’s definitely a change from working with my regular colleagues and there is a different pace for sure. But it’s a part of my job that I enjoy and it can be very rewarding to see how enthusiastic the students can be.

“Generally, students pick their own topics when they are working on the beamline depending on their interest, but we have a strong sense of collaboration and you can really see how they grow.”

Laroque suggested that every time he works with a school group he learns something about himself as well. “I’m teaching a Grade 8 student, for example, as a professor, but it definitely goes both ways. I’m always telling my undergrad and grad students that there are various levels of learning that occur and that’s what makes this teaching and learning.”

Looking beyond the TREE project, Walker said ideas are never the problem when it comes to future endeavours.

“I can’t tell you what things will look like in five years’ time, but I’m the sort of person who likes to try to capitalize on opportunities when I see them. Ultimately though, our goal remains the same in that we want to build programs that help students better understand research and pique their interest to want to know more. With the TREE project, I’m excited to see where it will go and we are incorporating Indigenous knowledge as well, which is a great example of how we are evolving in our approach. The wheels are always going,” she joked.

The data and findings of the TREE project will be shared with students and will be available to the public online. Teachers interested in the program can email Tracy Walker at education@lightsource.ca or visit tree.lightsource.ca.