Eighteen teen-agers gather in the parking lot at Runnymede Park and pass around the Off bug spray before trekking along the wooded path. The Herndon High students are not interested in the wildlife or flowering flora at Runnymede. Instead, they are on the hunt for dead trees.
As part of an ongoing biodiversity project, the geosystems and advance placement biology students at the school visit Runnymede for three weeks at a time in the fall and spring, to record the changes in the forest area.
The information is part of the Smithsonian Institution's Biodiversity Monitoring Program, which includes 30 schools throughout Colorado, Maryland, Oregon and Virginia.
Since the program began three years ago, the Herndon students have identified the more than 700 tagged trees in a 100 meter by 100 meter square, which contains 25 individual plots, designated for the project in the park.
"What we're suppose to do is see what has been going on," said Arlene Danby, the school's science department chair. "We've identified 24 species of trees, done photo essays and collected leaves. The students made mini-lessons about forest biodiversity and created a booklet of the details of each species."
Ultimately, the information being collected by the students will be analyzed, looking for trends that may be harming or helping the forest.
"We have some students that will never get to participate in a real scientific study. Real scientists will be using this data. If it's not accurate, it's no good," Danby said. "Everybody's got to be on the same page."
"THIS IS THE FIRST TIME, I've been to Runnymede to look at trees," said senior Tiny Kanyavong, an art student who visits the park for inspiration. "It's interesting, except it's too hot. It would have been nicer in the fall. I knew we would be doing something with trees. I didn't know we would be looking for dead trees."
Geosystems teacher, Rebecca Gentry, is leading the group on the dead tree hunt. The assignment for the day is to look for a tree that is dead, find its identification tag and record it. The information will then be entered into a computer back at school. An advance computer mapping program will determine if the trees had previously been identified as dead or if the tree recently expired. Eventually, when enough data is collected, the students will look for reasons as to way the trees died, if a particular species is growing better in a certain area of the park, or if one species is hampering the growth of another.
"It will be interesting to see next fall if any of the trees we thought were healthy and they have damage, to see why," Gentry said. "We're measuring the health of the forest every year."
The project, a collaborative effort by the Virginia Department of Education, American Honda Foundation, Friends of the National Zoo, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Virginia Environmental Endowment, and the Conservation and Research Center Foundation, began in 2000 with teacher training. Then members of the Smithsonian helped the teachers identify and mark out the study area, as well as tag and measure 700 trees.
"We have the information stored in a data base," Danby said.
BESIDES DOCUMENTING the trees, the students will have to measure the tree canopy and ground cover before beginning to analyze the information they have been collecting since 2002.
"We're trying to get the information in a form the kids can understand," Danby said.
Each student in geosystems, a type of advanced earth science course that uses technology and analysis to learn various concepts, is required to take part in an outdoor lab, however, all of the data collection and input is done after school rather than during class time.
In addition, the advance placement biology students have used the park for a water-quality study and are currently taking part in a salamander study, both of which are separate from the biodiversity study.
"It gets people out of city life," said junior Nick Erickson. "Some people don't get out in nature."