Archives For Education

The Chicago Botanic Garden offers classes for every age, interest, and skill level with instruction by experts in their fields.

So you think you’re an ace tree identifier. Those big scalloped leaves are from oak trees, the three-fingered hand shapes are maple leaves, those little oval leaves marching in a double line along a stem are from an ash—boo yah!

OK, now do it without any leaves.

And yes, you can…with a little help from Jim Jabcon, assistant ecologist for natural areas. The other day Jabcon, walked me through the McDonald Woods and began my education.

PHOTO: Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) bark.

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)

Jim Jabcon is giving a class on Identifying Trees and Shrubs in Winter on December 10. Sign up today!

First, he corrected my misinformation. I always thought the trick was looking at the tree’s habit—its size and shape. But no—especially not in a natural woodland like this. A tree’s habit depends on where it is growing—how crowded it is by other trees and what it has to do to catch some sunlight.

“Any tree will change its habit depending on what is given to it,” he said as we walked into the woods. “You can probably get 100 trees in a row, but it’s like a fingerprint. They all have different spaces, different light; they’re all going to be different.”

Still, there are some distinctive shapes. Does the tree have thick branches, even at its top with a fearsome, gnarly look worthy of a horror movie? Jabcon nodded at a towering behemoth that could have played a role in The Exorcist: it was an oak.

But let’s start with a major clue: bark.

Jabcon cast a practiced eye—an artist’s eye, in fact, for his degree is in fine art—over the trees. He pointed out a tall tree whose trunk was covered in thick, rough bark.

That bark is the giveaway. The tree was an oak; the tough bark is its secret to surviving fires.

PHOTO: Black walnut (Juglans nigra) bark.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra)

Nearby, another tree boasted thick bark with a rugged geometry, forming blocky rectangles running vertically up the tree in a kind of forest version of cubism.

“This is your black walnut,” Jabcon said. “It’s got a really good knobby bark.”

It also had another tree, a small sapling, growing in a crook about 5 feet up. Jabcon pulled it out and showed how its slender reddish branches were covered with a white chalky material that scraped off easily. “This is your box elder, in the maple family,” he said.

And further along the trail was a tree that won my heart because it looked like another part of a human body.

Its smooth, gray trunk was wrapped in bark with the sinewy look of muscle.

That was because the tree was a muscle wood—the common name for an American hornbeam, bestowed because of the signature appearance of its bark.

PHOTO: American hornbeam or muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana) bark.

American hornbeam or muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana)

Walking on, we stopped at another tree with its own distinctive bark, which looks like big hunks of bark pasted onto the trunk and separated by deep grooves. That “warty” bark, as Jabcon put it, identified it as hackberry. (Celtis occidentalis)

Blogger Kathy J. gives you a Tree 101 on hackberry in her post This Bark is Rough.

Still, bark isn’t the only clue. Jabcon pulled a slender branch close and examined the leaf buds running along its length.

They were in neat pairs, each bud opposite another. “Very few trees have opposite leaf buds,” he said. “Ashes. Maples. So if you’ve got opposite buds you can narrow it down.”

To make the final ID, he examined the terminal bud—the bud at the very end of the branch. It consisted of a cluster of three tiny points, making the branch look almost like a miniature deer hoof. That distinctive shape settled it: this was a white ash.

And so it went as we wandered through the woodland.

We looked at leaf buds, like the sulphur yellow leaf ones (“I love how cool they are,” Jabcon said) on a bitter nut, one of his favorite trees.

We looked at terminal buds, like the super-long ones that look like a goose’s bill and mark it as a nannyberry, a kind of viburnum.

PHOTO: Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) bark.

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata)

We looked at bark, like the one hanging in huge strips off a tree. It was a shagbark hickory. This tree’s bark has peeled off in such big pieces that bats have hibernated beneath them.

And if all else fails, there is another clue still there in winter, though soon it could be hidden under snow.

“It’s OK to cheat and look at leaves on the ground,” Jabcon said cheerfully, picking up a few oak leaves to prove the point. “They’re still there.”


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Thanksgiving is here again, and we at the Chicago Botanic Garden are thankful for all the pollinators who make our food possible, every day, around the world. Bats, bees, butterflies, birds, and more pollinate plants that create one-third of the food we eat.

As you enjoy a meal with friends and family, take a moment to say thanks for the little things that make such a big difference—pollinators!

Draw and color the foods you are eating at your feast in the center of your plate on our placemat. Check the answer key to see who pollinated them.Instructions: Click on the image above to download our placemat to enjoy with your feast.

The ideal printing size is tabloid (11 x 17 inches). Letter size paper (8.5 x 11 inches) will also work if you choose “fit to page” when printing.

Draw and color the foods you are eating on our placemat. Check the answer key to see who pollinated them. Then, fill the Thanksgiving plate by drawing and coloring the foods—fruits, vegetables, and spices—that were brought to you by pollinators.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Erica Rocha is a bright young woman who is going places in the career field of ecological research. Her participation in the Garden’s Science Career Continuum when she was a Chicago Public School student was an important step on her journey toward her future career as a scientist.

The Science Career Continuum is composed of three programs: Science First for high school freshmen and sophomores, College First for high school juniors and seniors, and the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) for college students. Erica participated in College First in 2012 and 2013 and came back to the Garden for the REU program during the summer 2015. She is currently a junior at Dominican University, studying environmental science.

PHOTO: Erica Rocha and Mereida Fluckes sort specimens in a laboratory.

As a college intern in the Garden’s REU program, Erica worked in the genetics lab and mentored high school student Mereida Fluckes.

Upon our recommendation, this summer Erica made a courageous decision to apply for the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). Erica had never traveled out of the midwestern United States before.

The Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP) is a two-year program for college students to explore environmental conservation through field research in northern California. The program includes leadership and professional training. Twenty students are selected to participate in a summer intensive, field-based course focused on collaborative research and diversity in the field of conservation science. 

We were pleased, but not surprised, when we learned that Erica was selected to participate in this program. Her experiences in the Science Career Continuum put her at an advantage, and provided an excellent foundation for this kind of experience. Erica had a great summer and wrote to tell the program manager, Amaris Alanis-Ribeiro, about it. It is encouraging to hear that all of the time and effort we devote to students in our program, as well as continuing to stay in touch and advise to them after they leave us, is paying off!


An email from Erica
October 6, 2016

Hi, Amaris!

My apologies for getting back to you so late but I really wanted to take the time to write about my DDCSP experience (there is so much to tell!!). 

Starting from the moment I got off of the plane and on the way over to the UCSC campus, I was completely stunned by the differences in landscape, weather, and topography of the Santa Cruz and San Jose area. I’ve never really traveled out of state much, so being able to experience a whole new environment and ecosystem that isn’t close to home was so exciting and thrilling to me.

That first day meeting everyone was overwhelming and I had no idea how close I would get to all of the scholars over the course of the summer. It was such a welcoming and comforting environment to be around them and the instructors because they share the same passion for conservation, social justice, and share similar stories as minorities and first generation students. Needless to say I’m grateful to have met all of them.

PHOTO: students with flashlights hunched over as they walk through a cave with a low ceiling.

We explored the caves in Santa Cruz.

The very first night, Eric, one of the scholars who attends UCSC, took us to explore the cave on campus. I saw the UCSC mascot there (a banana slug!). It was a great start to the program. We spent the rest of that week learning more about the different ecosystems in Northern California. This included going to Año Nuevo State Park, Moss Landing State Beach, the Redwood forests (with HUGE trees!), and a couple other places. I really enjoyed learning outside and placing all the textbooks’ concepts from back home into the field in California. 

PHOTO: Erica and her fellow students, loaded with backpacks, are hiking up a trail.

I took a selfie while we were hiking to our campsite.

After the first week on campus we headed to Big Creek Reserve in Big Sur for the ultimate camping trip. I’ve never seen such a pristine and pure environment in my life! There was hardly any human impact on the reserve—it is a great example of conservation and preservation of the land. And the water was like no other I have tasted!

Another great thing was that we basically had the whole reserve to ourselves. Only the land managers and stewards were there.

To top it off we placed our tents in the heart of the redwood forest and slept with the sound of the calming waters from Big Creek every night. I never thought camping could be so stress-free. Since our tents and kitchen were far from where the showers were, the creek was our go-to after a long day at the field. It was so refreshing and cold (which was great after being under the sun for hours).

PHOTO: the scholars in the program are sitting around a campfire at night.

Camping was great!

Our week in Big Sur was my absolute favorite. That is where we were introduced to the basics of research and started developing our own projects. This is where my interest in invasive ecology grew. One of the land stewards there, Feynner, is someone I really enjoyed meeting. He knows the reserve and the forest like the back of his hand. He was a great resource when coming up with research project ideas. He even invited me to come back if I wanted to do future research there.

The next reserve, Sagehen in Berkeley, was probably everyone’s least favorite spot. We were really crowded along with other students studying there. But it was a good in terms of my research there. I was able to conduct a social science project concerning the loggers working on the sustainable forest-thinning project in the reserve. It was interesting to interview the workers doing the labor behind such an elaborate conservation project directly. It gave me a new insight into research from the social science perspective. 

PHOTO: rocky mountains with scattered evergreen trees.

The White Mountains in Northern California are stunning.

Crooked Creek Research Station in the White Mountains was a close second to my favorite reserve. As at Big Creek, we were isolated 10,000 feet away from “civilization” as we liked to say. With limited internet, phone signal, and interacting with the same group of scholars, it allowed us to truly focus on our research.

This is the place where we first attempted to write a formal research paper from a collective project. It was an interesting process to narrow all the possible research topics according to everyone’s interest into one single connected project. This is also where our statistical knowledge was very useful for analyzing the enormous amount of detailed data that we took. It was definitely one of the moments that encouraged me to continue my studies in ecology and research.

Getting back closer to Santa Cruz, our last reserve was Swanton Ranch, where I got to collect data alongside cattle, herons, lizards, and a beautiful coastal view. I even got to substitute for a scholar in their project by helping guide a canoe in an estuary! Our final project here was the one we would present at the symposium in the Marine Lab on the UCSC campus. Having done the REU symposium at the Garden, I felt prepared and excited.

PHOTO: Students are sitting on the grass in a wooded area, listening to a leader.

We discussed diversifying the field of conservation.

Once we were back on campus after spending weeks at research stations, we continued our discussions and workshops on diversifying the field of conservation. We had a lot of great workshop leaders who really encouraged me to fight for a more just and inclusive workforce, not only in conservation but in my everyday life. 

All in all, I came back with a sense of purpose to be more involved in social justice for minorities and with a renewed excitement for ecology and conservation. Being surrounded by such intelligent, engaged, involved, and passionate scholars and instructors, I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have been chosen for this internship. I am so excited for next summer’s internship with DDCSP. I’m so grateful that you told me about this program and recommended me, because without your support I wouldn’t be where I am today. THANK YOU! 

Warmly, 
Erica Rocha


PHOTO: Erica Rocha Erica Rocha is a former Science Career Continuum participant, current Dominican University student, and future leader in environmental science and social justice. She signed up for—and presented her summer research at—the Louis Stokes Midwest Center of Excellence (LSMCE) Conference this past October.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Why cooking classes? I’ll tell you. I recently watched my 14-year-old “honor roll student” completely botch the job of making herself soup for lunch. I’m not talking about homemade soup; this was a can of tomato soup. Yes, a can of soup

PHOTO: A girl with a bag over her head, holding a pot in her right hand, a whisk in her left.

What is a teenager to do without any cooking skills?

She was stymied when she couldn’t find the directions on the label—you know, where it says, “Mix soup + one can water.” She fumbled with the can opener. She picked out the wrong size pot. I suggested that she use a whisk to break up the lumps, and her face tensed in an expression of utter despair (oh, teen drama!) until I pointed to the container of utensils within reach next to the stove. By this time, the unincorporated tomato puree was boiling over in a watery grave because she had the heat set too high. 

This is largely my fault for not involving her in the kitchen more. It has been challenging to muster the patience to teach my kids domestic skills that seem easier to do myself. I started thinking about all the things my daughter has missed by not having any good cooking lessons: understanding cooking terms, skills with tools and materials, mastery of any food preparation processes, and confidence in the kitchen, not to mention being able to make a hot meal for herself. A quick search on the web confirmed my fears. Over the last decade, lots of people have written about why we need to teach kids how to cook. Allow me to summarize the list of benefits:

Health: Studies show that when kids learn to prepare food, they are more likely to try new foods, and also to be open to making healthier food choices.

Math: We use all kinds of math in the kitchen: counting items, estimating volumes, measuring weight and volume, and keeping track of time.

Reading: Following a recipe requires reading and understanding cooking vocabulary.

Safety: Learning about safe kitchen practices could prevent a miserable experience with cuts, burns, or microbes and food poisoning.

Self-Esteem: Mastering skills such as mixing, chopping, and kneading requires practice, and so it builds self-confidence. When we learn to perfect particular dishes, we feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment.

Science: Cooking has many science applications: combining different ingredients involves working with chemical reactions; cutting up ingredients reveals the physical structures of plants, animals, and fungus. 

Social Studies: Cooking is linked to culture and tradition, and so there is a connection to history and social studies. 

Social Skills: Communication skills are essential when learning to cook. If there is one thing food TV shows have shown us, it’s that people love to talk about food as much as they enjoy eating it, and food gives shy kids something interesting to talk about.

Clearly, I have failed my daughter, but I suspect I’m not the only parent in this sinking gravy boat.

PHOTO: The pumkin pie ingredients are all on the counter, and two middle school girls are taking turns adding ingredients to the bowl.

Making a pumpkin pie requires lots of academic skills: reading, measuring, following directions, and even social skills.

And so, to address this deficiency in our children’s lives, my colleagues and I decided to bring back the fun and educational experience of a middle school cooking classes in our new ITW Kitchen at the Learning Center on the Regenstein Learning Campus.  In addition to all of the aforementioned benefits, we wanted all of our Chicago Botanic Garden cooking classes to teach kids where food comes from as we demonstrate cooking vegetables and fruits that are grown at the Garden.

PHOTO: The girl is turning the crank on the vegetable noodle machine and watching the curls of zucchini noodles fall into a bowl.

Turning a zucchini into noodles, also known as “zoodles,” was a favorite activity in this cooking class.

If cooking classes are so great, why were home economics classes cut from elementary schools? I believe this happened when our country’s leaders decided that students needed to devote more time and attention to pure reading and math. This was done with the best of intentions. However, cooking gives kids a practical reason to learn those academic disciplines. It makes all subjects more meaningful and worth learning, so maybe it’s time to say, “No Child Left Out of the Kitchen.”

PHOTO: a girls is smiling as she holds the plate of muffins she made, and is going to taste.

Why do kids like cooking? Because they like eating good food!

Have I convinced you? Then consider enrolling your youngster, or even yourself, in a cooking program. The Garden is the perfect place. And remember, if you leave the teaching to us, then you won’t have to clean up afterward.


Here are some upcoming cooking classes held in the new ITW Kitchen.


Healthy Cooking for Kids: Baking is a four-session class for Grades 5–8; the first in this series of cooking classes. 
Sundays, January 22 – February 12, 2017
1 – 4 p.m.
ITW Kitchen, Learning Center

An experienced kids’ culinary instructor will offer young teens some basic food-preparation techniques, as they follow recipes using healthy ingredients from a garden. By the end of this multi-week course, students will be able to bake savory scones, whole grain muffins, and other treats.


Weekend Family Classes are 90-minute programs with monthly mouthwatering themes, ideal for families with children ages 4-10 to make a dish together.

Sensational Squash
Sunday, November 13, 2016
9:30 – 11 a.m.
1 – 2:30 p.m.

Joyful Gingerbread
Saturday, December 3, 2016
Sunday, December 4, 2016
Saturday, December 17, 2016
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.

Loco for Cocoa!
Saturday, January 21, 2017
Sunday, January 29, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.

Sweet Treats: Cold Eats 
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Saturday, February 25, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.

Churn It and Flip ‘Em (Make your Own Butter and Pancakes)
Saturday, March 4, 2017
Sunday, March 12, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m. 

Pizza Party 
Saturday, March 25, 2017
Sunday, April 2, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.


Adult Cooking Classes are hands-on 90-minute workshops taught by food experts, who will introduce new ingredients, flavors, and techniques into your culinary repertoire.


Don’t forget summer camp!

ITW Kitchen Camps are week-long, food-featured summer camps for Grades 1-7.
Summer camp registration opens December 5, 2016.

  • Cooking A-Z, Grades 1-3 
  • Botany in the Kitchen, Grades 3-4
  • Cuisine, Grades 5-7

 

PHOTO: Two girls are eating carrots. One holds two fingers up behind the other's head to give her bunny ears.

Kids and bunnies like garden-fresh carrots, especially if they are preparing their own snacks and meals.

Check our website at chicagobotanic.org for the latest details about new classes, dates, times, registration, fees, and future cooking programs.

One final note: Since writing this blog, my own daughter can now make mac & cheese and a pretty good omelet. 


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A few years ago, my Daisy and Brownie Girl Scout troop was working on their Household Elf badge. We needed a fun way to teach about conserving water at home—not a lecture—because let’s face it, after a full day of school, 6- to 9-year-old girls would will not sit still and listen to another lesson. I decided to make a board game for them. The main message of this game was a really important one: in Chicago, all of our water for drinking, cleaning, and recreation comes from Lake Michigan. If we waste water, then we waste the lake. It is that simple. 

PHOTO: Board, cups, beads, and game tokens are arranged for the water conservation game.

The Water Conservation Game is set up and ready to play.

The girls responded very well to the activity. I am sharing it on the Garden’s blog for others to use, because at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we would also like people to understand the importance of conserving water from our lakes and other sources. Obviously this game was created for Chicago residents, but the same principles apply everywhere, in every community. The game could be adapted for another location by replacing the image of the Lake Michigan with an image to represent the local water source. (For most cities, that is groundwater.)

Download the game board

I discovered, to my surprise, that many of my Brownie Scouts were not familiar with board games. Most millennials have lots of experience pushing virtual buttons on a screen and competing against friends in cyberspace, but tossing a die and moving a token around a board with actual friends? Not so much. Anyone replicating this activity may find they need to explain how a game like this works. Also, it was also important to require that the players actually read the board squares in order to understand why they are taking two or three or ten beads as they move around the board. Having a discussion at the end of the game proved essential to getting the message across. 

After playing the game with my Scouts, I shared it with a group of middle school girls who were studying conservation in an after-school program. Believe it or not, it worked well with the older students, too. In fact, they loved it—mostly because they got to make a bracelet. But hey, whatever works, right?! 

To use this activity with your group, make one complete game set for every three to five students.

A game set includes:

  • 1 game board, printed on 11″ x 17″ paper
  • 1 six-sided die
  • Place marker tokens; one per person (these can be any small object, or borrow them from another board game set)
  • About 100 pony beads (I like to use transparent blue plastic beads because they look like water)
  • 1 small cup per person, plus one cup to serve as the bead reservoir
  • Elastic thread cut into 8-inch pieces; one per person (this is to make bracelets)

Game rules

  1. The object of this game is to move around the board and be the person who uses the least water. Remind players that every time we use water, we take a little more out out of Lake Michigan.
  2. Put about 100 beads in a cup and place it in the middle of the lake. The beads represent water from Lake Michigan. Players will keep track of how much water they use by collecting the beads in their cups as they move around the board.
  3. Players place their markers on “Start.” Each player rolls the die; the player with the highest roll goes first. If there is a tie, roll again to break the tie. The player sitting on the left of the first person goes second and players take turns going around the board in a clockwise direction. (I had to explain this to the girls in my troop.)
  4. The first player rolls the die and moves that number of spaces on the board in the direction of the arrows. The player lands on a square, reads what it says and follows the directions, collecting the beads from the reservoir and putting them into her own cup. Each player takes a turn and until everyone has moved around the board once and ended at the lake. It is not necessary to roll a perfect number to reach the end.
  5. When everyone is swimming in the lake at the end, tally up the number of beads each player has collected. The player with the fewest beads wins, because she used less water than the other players. 
  6. Return beads to the reservoir and play again once or twice to give others a chance to win. 

What is this game telling us? 

Ask the players to think about water use. The questions below can stimulate discussion. This can be brief, but it is important to reinforce the message that all of our water comes from Lake Michigan and we need to be responsible with water use.

  • What activities in the game used a lot of water and made someone lose the game?
  • What are some ways people waste water?
  • What practices use less water? 
  • What would happen if everyone was careless and used all the water from the lake? 
  • What can you do at home to reduce the amount of water you take out of Lake Michigan? 

 

PHOTO: Package of 620 pony beads and a bracelet made from the beads

Transparent blue pony beads resemble water and make a nice bracelet.

Make a water bead bracelet

For a fun wrap up, each player can make a bracelet using the beads and elastic string. Wear the bracelet to remember to try and use less water at home. The bracelet makes a nice reward for learning outside the classroom.

One last important note

When teaching young children about water conservation, avoid the temptation to bring up stories of environmental problems that are beyond their ability to solve right now in their lives, like unpleasant images of industrial pollution, drought, and famine. Child development experts will tell you that when we burden children with messages about how they need to help save the planet, we actually do more harm than good by making them feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and less inclined to adapt sustainable habits. Focus on things they can do, like turning off the water when they brush their teeth. It is enough that they learn not to use more water than they need at home so that they can share it with all of the creatures they love. This is a message we can respond to positively at any age.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org