Sprouting Acorns

Nature journaling is usually recognized as a personal reflection journal, and the marvels of nature are easily incorporated. Students record thoughts, possibly emotions, as well as written and/or illustrated observations.Science note-booking goes beyond the nature journal with a young scientist learning adage. The notebooks may be used to record many styles of observations, collect data, calculations, and student’s procedures. They may sketch or refine methods, design a study, as well as solutions for next steps by recording successes or failures.

Educators find note-booking to be a useful instruction and assessment tool. Phenomena in nature is abundant. The Natural History Calendar of Events that is compiled by the Missouri Department of Conservation is one way to initiate a nature journal and seek entries. One model stage for a phenomena investigation is a close examination of a forest floor…and tree regeneration is certainly accessible for urban and rural communities. Examining sprouting acorns and developing seedlings, plus recording manipulations and controlled samples provide student opportunities to apply authentic scientific practices.

Missouri’s oak trees may be separated into two groups: the red and the white oak family. There are many differences in the life histories and characteristics contrasting the families. The acorns of the white oak group are the nuts that sprout on top of the ground in the autumn. They don’t have to be buried or go through a cold spell to germinate. Trees in the white oak family range statewide. White oak (Quercus alba), swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), post oak (Quercus stellata) species are a few of these which may be discovered in the wild, or may be abundant in city parks or schoolyards. Their availability and the free use of the mast makes them suitable for classroom and homeschool study.

An observation class lab may be set up indoors or out. The design of the experiment may dictate whether the teacher selects a windowsill or flowerbed. A few easy to follow procedures this October/early November are as follows:

  1. Teachers may lead students into preliminary Missouri oak tree identification. Free tree identification materials are available from the Missouri Department of Conservation. Students might investigate the conservation department’s website for the field guide. Subject findings and distinguishing field marks are recorded in the science notebook.
  2. Educator locates a tree suitable for the students to harvest acorns off the ground. Mast is collected. Acorns that are whole and not damaged are gathered. Science notebook entry includes date/time/location and description of the ground level micro-habitat.
  3. The class may store them wrapped in moist paper towels to keep the acorns from drying out. Viable acorns are selected for the experiment by briefly placing all the acorns in a container of water. Acorns that sink are used for the experiment. Floating acorns will not sprout and should be discarded and composted. Reflections on floating vs. sinking acorns may be entered in the notebooks.
  4. Selected acorns are placed on the soil surface in a flower pot, a shallow saucer of soil or an area in an outdoor classroom. Water occasionally, and within days, the adventure of the autumn forest floor takes place indoors for classroom controlled observations or on the school ground. Young seedlings will grow in miniature for the classroom situation as long as they obtain moisture and light.

Teaching Tips for Further Investigation

  1. Students may check the impact of small amounts of road salt, school compost, worm castings, a natural soap or a substance used around their schoolyard or neighborhood.
  2. Students may investigate moth and butterfly species that consume the foliage of the white oak family for a caterpillar’s host plant.
  3. Rates of growth may be measured with one group of seedlings under a plastic bag filled daily with carbon dioxide. This group compared/contrasted with a control group having a bag covering the seedlings with only classroom air.
  4. Once seedlings are fully “leafed out”, can students manipulate conditions to stimulate fall color?

There are scores of experimental extensions to give a better view of the phenomena taking place at ground level on our forest floor.

Ideas and feedback may be shared with MEEA and Jeff at jeff.cantrell@mdc.mo.gov We look forward to hearing some discoveries and sharing different extensions to science note-booking and the investigations taking place in our natural communities.

Science notebooks are free to MEEA educators on the MDC teacher portal.