Academics & Research / Magazine Feature

When homework isn’t homework, it’s research

When first-year DU 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.

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

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

Sanford says scientists around the world are studying records of bud development to see if global warming is affecting how early tree leaves emerge. With an army of 180 students taking his labs in the spring quarter, and DU’s collection of documented and protected trees in the campus-wide arboretum, the University has an opportunity to deliver a valuable 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 be vigilant and get good data… it’s not just for a grade this time. What you’re doing is contributing to a global database. These people are relying on you. This is a global thing.”

Every tree on campus is tagged with a number, so students in future generations 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 area so the same bud can be revisited. Then, for the next five weeks, students measure their selected bud three times a week and chart its growth as a leaf emerges and starts to grow.

Students join in a campaign called Project BudBurst, led by Sandra Henderson, a science educator at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) Office of Education and Outreach in Boulder. BudBurst gathers data in a scientific field called phenology, the study of the influence of climate on annual natural events, such as plant budding and bird migration.

They register on a Web site and upload their data, which is then made available to scientists around the world. Sanford says some of the earliest reliable records of plant cycles dates back to 700 AD, data carefully collected year after year for centuries on the Japanese cherry tree cycles.

Student Aaron Hogan, working towards a degree in ecology, says he enjoys getting out in the field and doing real research. Interested in biology, but not interested in becoming a medical doctor, Hogan says he hopes 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 to the information that’s out there.”

Sanford says his class isn’t pushing any one theory of global warming. Rather, it’s testing the hypothesis that something is altering the life cycle of plants around the world.

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