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When homework isn’t homework, it’s research

When first-year DU (Denver University) biology students sign up for Professor Buck Sanford’s newest class, they have really signed up for something bigger: a real-life probe into global warming.

When homework isn’t homework, it’s research

Professor Buck Sanford and students measure tree buds. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

For their class lab work, students have been measuring tree buds asleaves emerged this spring. Then they upload weekly findings intoglobal databases being assembled for scientists to study today and fordecades into the future.

“These measurements really do matter,” Sanford warned his studentsas they prepared for their first day of data collection. “The data youcollect will be studied by a global community of scientists, acommunity that you are now part of.”

Sanford says scientists around the world are studying records of buddevelopment to see if global warming is affecting how early tree leavesemerge. With an army of 180 students taking his labs in the springquarter, and DU’s collection of documented and protected trees in thecampus-wide arboretum, the University has an opportunity to deliver avaluable snapshot of activity in Denver every spring.

Briefing the new students, teaching assistant Kris Veo stressed the importance of gathering good information.

“This is kind of a big deal,” he said. “This is why you need to bevigilant and get good data… it’s not just for a grade this time. Whatyou’re doing is contributing to a global database. These people arerelying on you. This is a global thing.”

Every tree on campus is tagged with a number, so students in futuregenerations can find the exact same tree today’s students are studying.The way it works is a student selects a bud on a tree and tags the areaso the same bud can be revisited. Then, for the next five weeks,students measure their selected bud three times a week and chart itsgrowth as a leaf emerges and starts to grow.

Students join in a campaign called Project BudBurst, led by SandraHenderson, a science educator at the University Corporation forAtmospheric Research (UCAR) Office of Education and Outreach inBoulder. BudBurst gathers data in a scientific field called phenology,the study of the influence of climate on annual natural events, such asplant budding and bird migration.

They register on a Web site and upload their data, which is thenmade available to scientists around the world. Sanford says some of theearliest reliable records of plant cycles dates back to 700 AD, datacarefully collected year after year for centuries on the Japanesecherry tree cycles.

Student Aaron Hogan, working towards a degree in ecology, says heenjoys getting out in the field and doing real research. Interested inbiology, but not interested in becoming a medical doctor, Hogan says hehopes his study of life and biodiversity will help him in his career.

“It looks like it’s going to be really interesting, something new,”he says. “I think it’s good that our work will help others and add tothe information that’s out there.”

Sanford says his class isn’t pushing any one theory of globalwarming. Rather, it’s testing the hypothesis that something is alteringthe life cycle of plants around the world.
May 11, 2009
Chase Squires
DU Today
Biology (tree), Phenology
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