To develop an understanding of the diversity of scientific research in the context of the story of how researchers learned about the giant redwoods in Northwestern California.
This lesson makes use of a book by the same name, The Wild Trees, written by Richard Preston. This book is one of the winners of the 2008 SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books (you can read about this prize at: Book Award). SB&F, Science Books & Films, is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In The Wild Trees, author Richard Preston introduces us to, at first, just a few intrepid adventurers, untrained in botany (or, for that matter, any science), who sought to both discover and climb the tallest coast redwoods in Northwestern California (the primary area in which this species is to be found). As their fascination with the venture grew, so did their desire to get advanced degrees in the plant sciences and to learn the ways of the biology of the trees—especially the astonishing new world of the temperate rain-forest canopy. From the 1970s onward, the techniques of tall-tree climbing—the rope systems, the tools, the tricks of the trade—are all here, carefully laid out in a historical study. This is less a history of science or a book purely about science (although we do learn a lot about canopy architecture, some of its denizens [the lichens that inhabit Sequoia sempervirens, for instance] and a bit of other biology) than it is a book about adventure. Preston tells a tale of adventurers 300 feet up, ofttimes tethered by a single, slender thread and about the characters who taught themselves to climb the trees and in the process conducted science of a very passionate and daring nature.
The Wild Trees can be used in the classroom to target a wide array of learning goals from the nature of science to ecosystems to environmental science to biological diversity, etc. For this lesson, we will focus on the scientific inquiry benchmark based on the unique and engaging perspective on scientific research presented in the book and the depiction of the researchers as individuals whom students will find engaging. Although it is nonfiction, the book tells a story much as a novel would.
Using The Wild Trees student esheet to guide them, students should go to Photo Tour: Giant Sequoia to look at a brief slide show of giant redwood trees. After they've looked at the slide show, ask students to consider how much they think these trees have been studied by scientists and how they would go about gathering data about such trees.
After students have looked at the slide show, ask questions such as these:
- The oldest giant redwood trees can be over a thousand years old. Do you think there is much for scientists to still discover about them?
- How do you think scientists undertook gathering data about these trees?
- What do you think the tops of these trees are like?
(Answers will vary. Encourage students to explain their responses.)
Next, students should use their esheet to listen to a podcast interview with Richard Preston, author of The Wild Trees, in which the author discusses his book and what inspired him to write it. This interview provides a good introduction to the book.
After students have been introduced to the book, assign The Wild Trees as an independent reading assignment where students use the book to consider how scientists investigate phenomena. Using The Wild Trees student sheet and ideas from Name that Chapter!, students should keep a reading log in which they summarize what happens in the chapters with specific reference to the titles and to the scientific investigations that take place. Specifically, they should write a few sentences explaining what the original chapter name means; then they should suggest a new name for the chapter and explain its significance to the book and to scientific inquiry.
The reading assignment can take place over a period of time. You should check for progress by having reading quizzes or classroom discussions. The student sheet can be reviewed in segments, as students complete each chapter.
Students can share their new chapter names with the class and explain how they came up with the new chapter titles.
After students have read the book, pass out the About Narrative Nonfiction student sheet to the class. Give students some time to reflect on the information and to jot down some notes about the characteristics of The Wild Trees that place it in the narrative nonfiction genre. Then have a discussion around this issue by asking questions such as:
- Describe how The Wild Trees tells a story. Is it like other nonfiction books you have read?
- How are the characters in The Wild Trees like characters in a novel?
- Do you think The Wild Trees has a theme? What is it?
- Were there parts of the story that were suspenseful or dramatic?
- Was the author's point of view apparent in the telling of the story?
- Does the fact that this is a true story make it more or less engaging to you?
- What other kinds of "true" stories do you think can be told in this way?
(Answers will vary. Encourage students to explain their responses.)
In order to assess student understanding, students should write an essay using one of these possible topics:
- Describe what is known and what is yet unknown about giant redwoods.
- Discuss the role of hard work, imagination, and chance in the work of the researchers that study giant redwoods.
- Describe the ecosystem that is found on the redwood tree canopies. What was surprising about some of the things that the researchers discovered?
The essay can be done in class or as take home. Your assessment should take into account the reading level of the students and their writing ability. For younger or less advanced students, responses could be one paragraph in length. For more advanced students, they should be able to respond in three to five paragraphs on one of the topics.
Students can create a model of a giant redwood and describe organisms found in the canopy, how they relate to the tree and to each other. They can use Redwood Photo Tour on Stephen Sillet's site, to find pictures and descriptions of the organisms that live on these trees. To create the model, they could take a piece of chart paper and draw a tree and make illustrations of the living things that can be found at various heights. Or, they could just concentrate on the organisms found on the canopy.
Students can explore other books by author Richard Preston. His website will introduce you to some of his other titles. Students can read these titles as independent reading assignments.
You can adapt the Cathedral in the Sea lesson, from the Secrets of the Ocean Realm site produced by PBS. In this lesson, students construct a model of a kelp forest.
The Save the Redwoods League site contains a wealth of information about redwood forests and efforts to restore and protect them.