School scientists study christmas tree longevity

Together with Prof. Angela Moles, I’ve been working with a group of Year 7 students and their science teacher Nikki Zimmerman from Kambala to investigate how to make your Christmas tree  last longer.  As part of the brilliant Scientists in Schools program, Angela and I visited the students at least weekly over the last couple of months.  The students designed the experiment, choosing four different treatments, using supplies found in the average house, to see if branches in their chosen conditions would last longer than just when placed in just tap water.

Setting up the pocket-PAM to make some measurements

To track pine-needle health, the students used a pocket-PAM (very similar to this one) which measures how efficiently the pines could convert light energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis.  All the branches became less healthy over the month of measurements, but there were big differences between the treatments.  Read all about our findings here.

The student trials used the species commonly used as Christmas trees in Australia, in contrast to a Mythbusters episode which had asked a similar question using a short-needled conifer popular in the US. As with most science experiments, though our findings answered questions, they generated others – why did some treatments work better or worse than others and is the most effective treatment the most practical? Involving the students at all stages of the process, from treatment selection to writing up the findings, meant the students took ownership of the experiment and really became excited about it.

My aim wasn’t to inspire all students to be scientists, but rather to help students understand what scientist do, how they approach a problem and methodically collect data, and how exciting it is to find out new things.  Then, I hope, they will feel comfortable and confident interpreting and understanding the significance of science in the media and be able to carefully consider evidence presented to them.  Another constant aim in outreach activities is to encourage curiosity and questions about how the world around us works. It has been great fun working with Mrs Zimmerman’s Year 7 class, and fantastic to watch the students develop new skills and a better understanding of undertaking research from project conception right through to paper production.

When, in one of the last lessons, one of the students looked at a graph of the results up on the screen and gave an unprompted, succinct, accurate summary of the results, that began with “Isn’t in amazing that…”, I was thrilled!