By Richard Bryant
Developing students’ critical thinking skills. That was the goal of this summer’s Michigan Math and Science Scholars coursework at Matthaei-Nichols, says intern Richard Bryant, who helped teach one of the courses.
Each summer, the University of Michigan runs a program called Michigan Math and Science Scholars (MMSS) in which high school students from all over the world are selected on a competitive basis to study at the U-M. The two weeks of classes are conducted by a university faculty member, a graduate instructor, and an undergraduate instructor. Because the students live in an on-campus dormitory during their stay, they get to experience something that closely resembles what it’s like to attend a public university. At Matthaei-Nichols each summer, Curator David Michener teaches the class Life, Death & Change: Landscapes & Human Impact. I was fortunate to be the graduate instructor for the course this summer.
Five of the ten class days were held at Matthaei Botanical Gardens; the other five at Nichols Arboretum. On a typical day students are presented with a science puzzle to solve. For example, how do you determine in a plant population which species are likely to be native and which invasive? How can one assess whether the trees in a forest fall in random directions? Is there an association between soil properties such as color and pH, and the vegetation supported by that soil? How much water does a tree transpire on a hot summer day and what impact does this have on the ecosystem?

David Michener, right, conducts a Michigan Math &
Science Scholars class this summer
Every day we tackled questions like these, with an emphasis on training students to think critically. We asked the students, for example, what they would even begin to measure in order to make an educated guess about whether a plant was invasive.  They started to see variation in amount of leaf damage — they inferred shortly thereafter that the leaves of invasive exotic plants tend to have a relatively smaller amount of damage.   

They figured out that invasive plants are less common food sources for our native insects and fungi.  In another challenge, students were asked to calculate how much water a tree transpires on a hot summer day. Before they could figure that out they needed to estimate the number of leaves on an entire tree. Actually counting this would take days. So how can one estimate this number as precisely and as quickly as possible?
This was my third summer helping to conduct and teach the MMSS class, but my first as a graduate instructor. Because of my background and current coursework in statistics I led several discussions about data that students may have collected that day. Curator David Michener stressed throughout the class the importance of working with a statistician while conducting field work, and how ubiquitous the field of statistics is across almost all scientific disciplines. I led a discussion one afternoon about the direction of tree fall in Radrick Forest, as well as which direction the trees are leaning. Once the data are collected, how do statisticians look at it?  They would need to state their hypotheses, decide what kind of test is most appropriate, check that the conditions for that test are met, and interpret their results.  Our conclusion was that, indeed, the tree falls are most definitely notfalling or leaning in random directions.

Richard Bryant (center, black shirt) with intern
Joel Klann (white shirt), conducts an outdoor segment of the
Michigan Math & Science Scholars class.
My proudest moment in class came when I asked students to estimate the number of leaves on various trees at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.  I was pretty sure I caught some distinct boredom vibes wafting through the air.  After about ten minutes, some of the students were yawning, socializing and distracted by electronic devices.  I overheard one student asking another why we cared so much about how many leaves are on a tree, and then taking so long to answer that question.  I initiated an impromptu spiel about how questions like these arise all the time in the university setting and in interviews with prospective employers. Consider that professors and interviewers might care less about what you know and more about how you think about what it is you don’tknow. This notion also extends to an academic degree. The degree may demonstrate knowledge of a particular field, but far more importantly, it ought to display an ability to think and to solve challenging problems. When I put it that way I perceived an attitude shift no less than an hour later, where the students approached the questions of the day with significantly greater attention and intrigue.

Helping to train students who could be tomorrow’s environmental scientists was a joy and a privilege. Using the two Matthaei-Nichols sites to train students to think was thrilling. I’ve worked at these two sites for close to four years, but it is incredibly refreshing to see them through the eyes of high school students. It’s gratifying for me to see Matthaei-Nichols being used to connect and engage future students in ways they may never forget. Immersed in a natural setting, the students discovered myriad ecological principles—principles that govern sites throughout the natural world. In essence, Matthaei-Nichols laid out a framework for how these students will progress as they move into future chapters of their lives.

Richard Bryant
Richard Bryant, from Rochester Hills, Michigan, is a second-year masters student in applied statistics. His primary areas of interest are consulting and multivariate analysis in big data. Richard is working as an intern in plant records and garden plans.