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Future scientists explore Arboretum in youth summer science program

Avery Bleichfeld
Future scientists explore Arboretum in youth summer science program
Nancy Sableski (right), the Arnold Arboretum manager of children’s education, hands out bug boxes for students to examine insects in Hemlock Hill ecosystem.. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

On an overcast July morning, equipped with bug boxes and clippers, a group of about 15 middle school students gathered at the base of Hemlock Hill in Arnold Arboretum, ready to investigate the local ecosystem as part of a month of hands-on experience with science offered to Boston Public Schools students.

During the Arboretum Young Scientists Program, students participate in two science blocks per day, tackling activities outside in the Arboretum’s landscape, learning about the plants that grow there and animals that make up the various ecosystems.

A student bends over a nurse log on Hemlock Hill in the Arnold Arboretum while discussing ecosystems July 21. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

That programing might include doing experiments to see how different levels of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide affect plant growth; examining how flowers become fruit; or exploring what plants and insects live on Hemlock Hill.

Nancy Sableski, the Arboretum’s manager of children’s education, who developed the program now in its second year, said it is designed to engage and entertain middle schoolers, but also serves as way to expose them to career opportunities they might not have considered otherwise.

“It’s not just did the kids have fun today? But did the kids get invested in learning? And did the kids feel safe? Did they feel like there was plenty of room to express who they were, and nobody was looking down on them?” Sableski said.

Those new opportunities are especially important for students of color, who might not see themselves reflected much in science roles or horticulture.

“There’s certainly a push for more students of color in STEM and oftentimes, we quickly envision that as biological sciences that are more cell biology or chemistry, or studying physics, but the space that is even more sparse of Black and brown students and people of color is ecology and botany science,” said Kareen Wilkinson, a BPS science teacher who also serves as a coordinator of the program.

The staff is also largely people of color, which Wilkinson said is important to provide role models for the students.

“It’s important to see role models who look like you in any space because it allows you to understand that a torch is being passed,” Wilkinson said. “That older person who’s in this science space has the opportunity to pass the torch to the younger person, and they can take that torch and run with it.”

Jeanette Henderson, who serves as the liaison for the American Public Gardens Association’s education community, said generally welcoming more diverse groups into arboreta and public gardens is an ongoing goal within her organization. Arnold Arboretum is one of its members.

“We know that gardens can be an amazing space for wellness, and for health and renewal. And so we want to make sure that they’re open for all and they’re accessible for all,” Henderson said.

Kareen Wilkerson (right), a BPS teacher and the Arboretum Young Scientists program coordinator, leads a game with the students before beginning a science activity July 21. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

Sableski said the program was designed to fill a gap in the Arboretum’s programing. For almost 40 years, the Arboretum has worked with students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in its Field Study Experiences Program. But before last summer, one explicitly for middle schoolers did not exist.

“Middle school has been seen as a very challenging age to serve. It’s the dawn of adolescence and all the challenges of no longer being a young child, but not having experienced much of adulthood either,” Sableski said. “At the same time, it’s a wonderful moment because these kids are shaping their values, they care very much about justice, and they’re very curious, they’re very inquisitive. They can learn science at a different level than for elementary school kids.”

Henderson said that, while other middle school-aged programs exist, they tend to be less common than those for elementary schoolers.

“There’s just known reasons for that,” Henderson said. “Around those ages, kids start to get into sports and music, and they get involved in more things, so nature and being outside takes a little bit of a backseat for those.”

Students in the Arboretum Young Scientists Program play a game before beginning a science activity. PHOTO: AVERY BLEICHFELD

For Wilkinson, continuing to offer summer programs that are educational is important to keep students from experiencing learning loss over the summer while also exposing BPS students to new parts of the city and new opportunities.

“Many of our students who participate have never been in the Arboretum before. It is their first time that they are in this space and seeing the science that is involved in studying trees and the impact that they play in our environment, but also understanding the beauty that they have, whether it is in a cultivated, a curated space, or whether it is in a naturally grown untouched space and it becomes a natural ecosystem,” Wilkinson said.

She said the program’s topics dovetail well with the BPS middle school science curriculum, which includes units on matter and photosynthesis and on ecosystem dynamics in seventh grade, and a unit on genetics and natural selection.

The program was developed through inspiration from a pair of programs at Chicago Botanic Gardens, designed to engage middle school students and then support them as they transition into high school toward college.

Sableski said it’s too early for any planning, but a similar design at the Arboretum is the dream, where the Arboretum Young Scientists Program or a high-school-level spinoff could help students who might be the first in their family to go to college envision what that pathway might look like.

For her ideal system, however, the Arboretum’s programs would consider more pathways.

“I would never say I want to see a program that is strictly encouraging people to think of themselves as scientists. [Maybe] they want to be a horticulturalist, or they want to learn how to sow seeds, or they want to … be a farmer,” Sableski said. “The whole idea that if they found a pathway that made sense to them through a program that they started middle school and continued in high school, and they stayed connected to a bunch of the kids who are traveling that same way, that in my mind, that would be a great success.

Arboretum Young Scientists Program, Arnold Arboretum, STEM