High-school students from across the country and around the world get a taste of college each summer. Our own Associate Curator David Michener introduces the students to the world of plants and landscapes.

Matthaei-Nichols Associate Curator David Michener began his Michigan Math & Science Scholars class session in late June with high school students hailing from the U.S. and China, South Korea, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. David’s class is “Life, Death and Change: Landscapes and Human Impact.” The course immerses students in real-world landscapes. 

Michigan Math & Science Scholars prepare
a tree branch to learn about how trees move
water from the soil into the atmosphere.

Michigan Math & Science Scholars prepare a tree branch to
learn about how trees move
water from the soil into the

The Michigan Math and Science Scholars program offers a pre-college experience that exposes students to a breadth of curricula offered at the University of Michigan while introducing high school students to current developments and research in the sciences. The program is open to any high school rising sophomore, junior or, senior from around the world. Three 2-week sessions are offered; students are given the opportunity to attend one or two sessions. Read more about the program here.

On Wed., July 5, David was in the lab and out in the field teaching the students about leaf transpiration. We asked the students for their reactions to the leaf transpiration lab experiment. Many hadn’t heard about it before and were surprised and intrigued by the problem of extrapolating the surface area of the leaves of an entire tree from a single branch—among other problems—to determine how much water is being returned to the atmosphere. “I’ve studied it in class before but this is the first time I’ve seen a real-life demonstration of the process, so it’s pretty cool to see how it works” said one student from Washington, DC.

Matthaei-Nichols Associate Curator David Michener (in blue plaid shirt), takes Michigan Math & Science Scholars on a botanical road trip through the Arboretum and Matthaei during his course “Life, Death and
Change: Landscapes and Human Impact.”

After they take his course, says David, “the students will never see the same world quite the same way.” All environmental studies presume a landscape,” he continues, “yet what seems to be a simple landscape is often far from uniform or stable.” A great deal of information critical to anyone entering the “green” sciences can be detected for analysis—including factors that may fundamentally control species diversity, habitat richness, and animal (let alone human) behavior. Resolving human from non-human agency is an engaging and important challenge, too—one scientists and green professionals grapple with repeatedly. The real-world landscapes of David’s course range from the nearly pristine to the highly humanized, giving students the opportunity to solve problems that at first might seem impossible to solve.
“Critical thinking skills are essential rather than prior biological course and field work,” David notes. “The students come prepared to look, measure, analyze, discus and learn how the interaction of plants, soils, climate and time (and humans) influences landscape development.”

Students learn to develop basic skills in plant recognition and identification that they can transfer to other terrestrial communities. The course addresses questions about the current vegetation, its stability over time and its future prospects. Practical insights into the realities of biological conservation are gained as students study how we can manage species and landscapes for future generations. At the end of the course, students will have a conceptual skill set that helps them assess how stable and disturbed the “natural” areas are near their home, “and prepares them to put instructors on the spot in college classes to come,” David adds.