I spent part of our recent snow day in New England on the phone talking to Richard Primack when a new story came to light. He told me that about six years ago, his lab started monitoring the spring leaf-out times of trees in suburban Boston, where he and I both live. Among other things, they found that while red and Norway maples begin to leaf out in early to mid-April, oaks don’t even start until early May. There’s generally a two to three week gap in between.
Well, guess what? My second-grade daughter has some data to add to his records.
Every spring for the past three years, from her bedroom window, my older daughter and I have been making observations of three different trees—a Norway maple, a sycamore maple, and an oak of unknown species—and recording them in a little notebook. And we’ve seen the exact same pattern that Primack has: the maples leaf out first, and the oak follows a few weeks or even a month later.
I explained to her that I was just talking on the phone with a scientist who had asked the same question about the exact same types of trees, and that that our research matched his—that we observed the same patterns he had. Her eyes grew wide, she smiled, and she looked outside again. Her work had been validated by a real live scientist—and, even better, hers had validated his.
What excites her the most—and excites me, quite honestly—is that there are still so many unknowns right in front of our faces, and right outside our windows. The kinds of questions kids ask, the ones that seem so obvious on the surface, are often the very questions scientists haven’t answered yet—or need to answer again.
Just today, I noticed buds from one of the nearby maples littering the ice-crusted snow in our yard, casualties of the nasty winter storm that pelted us earlier this week. Most of these buds already have pale yellow flowers dangling from them. The leaves can’t be far behind. Or can they? Guess it’s already time for all three of us to begin our observations.
This is a condensed version of a post originally published on Last Word on Nothing.
Jenny Cutraro is the founder and director of Science Storytellers, a program that connects kids and scientists through conversation and storytelling, and is also a managing editor at SciStarter, where she oversees their citizen science blog network on Discover, PLoS, and other outlets. At WGBH in Boston, she developed an award-winning collection of education resources for the Emmy-nominated PBS KIDS series Plum Landing. She also has produced science education resources for PBS Learning Media, NOVA Science NOW, and The New York Times Learning Network.