The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 13, 2009


Leaf project a rite of passage for freshmen – and their families

About 80% of students in this year’s freshman class at Concord-Carlisle High School just completed one of their first milestone projects: the “Leaf Project.” As many parents of present and past students know, it’s a rite of passage at the high school. The project, starting in September and ending in late October, requires the students to find 50 pre-determined sample leaves, describe them and organize the material into a large binder. Since students do not have driver’s licenses as freshmen, excursions to find the leaves typically become a family endeavor. Some parents say they’ve visited Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain…sometimes several times before finding all the leaves.

Science teachers Jeff Yuhas, Peter Nichol and Ray Pavlik spent another fall season collecting leaf project binders from this year’s crop of Earth Science students at Concord-Carlisle High School. (Photo by Anne Marie Brako)

CCHS science teacher Wilson Flight, a former National Science Teacher of the Year, began the project in the mid-1990s and very quickly it was included in all of the Earth Science classes. Even after Flight’s retirement four years ago, the project continues. Ray Pavlik, who joined the department 13 years ago and has taught the unit as many times, says, “It’s been modified quite a bit since its genesis. We’ve tried to focus it a lot more on trees in this area.” Although the project involves collecting leaves, it’s really about much more than trees.

“The purpose is an introduction to science and to the high school,” says Pavlik. “Incoming students are often not aware of the diversity of trees in the area. They learn to pay attention to detail and discover how many different types of trees are out in the environment.” Students also learn about classification and how to organize their work. The project spans two months, which seems like a lot of time, but unless one gets started early, a string of rainy weekends can seriously impact collection.

“It is one of the bigger long-term projects they have,” agrees science teacher Jeff Yuhas who has taught the project for the ten years he’s been at the school. “And it’s a rare freshman who comes in that doesn’t know about it; it has a notoriety that goes down to the middle schools.” He values the project because it encourages students to develop good research habits, planning their work and collecting items in an orderly fashion.

Change over the years

The list of leaves has not remained stagnant since the project’s inception. The department has added some trees that are more common to the area and eliminated some that are harder to find due to blight and disease. While a “Googler’s” map makes the project possible in Concord alone, many people prefer going to the Arnold Arboretum where many trees have identifying labels.

“We love that the kids to go into Boston to the arboretum,” says Pavlik, “because it’s such a remarkable place and because of the diversity of stuff that they see. But it’s also really big.” Students expecting rows of trees in a nursery setting encounter wide expanses and may spend an entire afternoon in just one portion of the site.

“Part of the project is working together and we do have ‘leaf-trading days,’” according to Yuhas. He recounts kids bringing in a list of leaves that are hard to find and others sharing where they have found them. Or, they may go outside together to one of the 35 trees on campus that are on the list. While students are encouraged to work together in the search, they also do have to include 20 photos to document that they were physically out looking for leaves.

Pavlik, also a soccer coach at the high school, relates an incident that occurred at a game at Westford when a player got hit in the head. In trying to determine if he suffered a concussion, the student was asked to identify a specific leaf that had blown over him. When he responded correctly, “That’s the pin oak, coach,” Pavlik concluded that the injury couldn’t have been that serious.

Yuhas says that the best feedback he has received is that it brings parents and kids together. “But it is a student project.”

Pavlik enjoys seeing students identify leaves after the project ends. “They’re walking down the street and they say, ‘there’s a honey locust.’” A parent told him that a year after a boy had completed the course, while on vacation, friends were wondering about a type of tree and her son responded, “That’s a quaking aspen.”

Another class has just completed this rite of passage at the high school, so if you ever need help identifying a tree in town, don’t hesitate to ask a teenager.∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito