William Paterson University Professor Nicole Davi Creates Free, Online Science Lab Curriculum Based on Tree-Ring Expeditions

Professor Nicole Davi teaches her students how to obtain tree core samples during a research trip to Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

What does it really take to be a scientist?

William Paterson University environmental science professor Nicole Davi wants college students to know. And she wants students beyond William Paterson University to know. Hence, through a grant from the National Science Foundation, Davi led a team to design a free online curriculum of five, two- to three-hour multimedia lab classes to be used primarily by professors teaching introductory science courses. The labs were created with the ultimate goal of not only teaching scientific concepts, but also instilling an overall appreciation of the field.

A graph in a science textbook can provide students with data; “what it can’t show is the extraordinary scientific effort that went into creating that dataset: the inspiration behind an idea, attempts – successful and unsuccessful – to get funding, launching a field expedition to collect data, processing and analyzing those data, publishing, and presenting results to peers at conferences,” Davi says in an article describing her project. That article is scheduled to be printed in the Journal of Tree-Ring Research in July; Davi’s online labs and her research expertise are based in dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating – analyzing growth rings of trees/wood to determine both the year each ring was grown and details of the environment at the time. Accordingly, her bundle of lab classes is referred to as “TREX” – short for “Tree-Ring Expeditions.” However, she stresses, her labs translate for use in introductory courses in geology or environmental sustainability, among others, or more advanced courses in research methods, hydrology, and climate change science.

“Because the basic premise of dendrochronology is so easily understandable – non-expert audiences can see climate variability through time with the naked eye by looking at tree cores – tree rings provide a wonderful window into how scientists do science and why they do it,” Davi says.

Additionally, she explains, many tree-ring scientists travel to beautiful, remote regions across the globe in search of long-lived trees to study. Their scientific expeditions to such remote field sites can in and of themselves be of interest to students, and can be used to generate students’ interest in science.

Among other offerings, TREX labs include interactive maps and virtual 360-degree field exploration (using Google Earth technology and Davi’s own photos that have been loaded into that system), videos of scientist interviews and field work, an animation about identifying climate-sensitive trees, and high-resolution scans of tree cores from the study sites – which can be zoomed into and out of using virtual microscopes.

The multimedia component of her teaching resource, Davi says (she employed experts in animation and video editing, for example), makes TREX labs stand out from other online offerings – especially ones that are free. Another difference she notes about her labs is that while they are based in dendrochronology, Davi uses that field to introduce broader concepts such as climate change and drought. “It’s more of, ‘This is how scientists work.’ It’s really to support science literacy,” Davi says. “I don’t see other materials that are based on a discipline, overall; they’re more based on, ‘Let’s talk about this specific issue, such as global warming.’”

Each TREX lab charges students with various tasks and assignments – determining the year a tree fell, measuring tree core samples, comparing their work to online datasets, or evaluating current drought maps. Additionally, for professors, the TREX webpage includes background materials, teaching notes and tips, downloadable student activity sheets, answer keys, and assessment options. (Content for professors is located behind a firewall that is inaccessible to students and the general public. Instructors must request access through the TREX site.)

TREX labs have been classroom-tested and assessed by faculty teams and students both at William Paterson University and beyond – both in intro level courses and upper-level courses. They were also professionally reviewed by paid consultants.

Davi will take TREX to Colombia in 2020 through a Fulbright grant to develop long term climate records from high-altitude ecosystems of the Colombian Central Cordillera. She will work with Colombian scientists at EAFIT University and Universidad EIA, where she plans to use TREX to train faculty and students on dendrochronological methods. She will also give public lectures and/or run a faculty workshop on tree-ring science and using TREX in a variety of courses.