The Plot Thickens



Small groups of students will establish their own phenology plots for long term study. Students will make a field sketch of a sample plot and turn it into a scale map. The map will accurately place plants the students have identified for tracking phenophases, so that the plots can be monitored long term. Phenology is a vital part of the climate change issue, and is one important portion of the Tundra Nutrient Seasonality project at Toolik Field Station. While working with Research Assistant Carolyn Livensperger, I kept thinking how fun it would be for our students to string little beads on wires, wrap them around plant stems so they can be found again in the future, and track the phenology of those plants over the years. I know some students would want to keep checking on "their" plants during their entire time at our school.


  • Students make a field sketch and turn it into a scale map
  • The students will learn how to lay out and mark a sample plot
  • Students will describe their plot with physical characteristics like slope, orientation, sun/shade amount, dryness, and microclimate variables such as air and soil temperatures
  • Identify three or four common plants that they can mark and track over time
  • Identify key phenological stages including first leaf, flower, bud, full leaf, first fruit, and senescence
  • Properly collect data and manage a dataset
  • Design and follow a marking scheme for their plots, and key features inside of it, including their sample plants
  • Share data with one another to construct a full dataset
  • Research other phenology datasets; draw conclusions and ask further questions about their own and others' research

Lesson Preparation

Student teams will each establish their own 1m squared plots in an area of the schoolyard that can be relatively easy to reach, and easy to leave undisturbed. There should be several perennial plants included in the plot, native or cultivated, depending on what you've got to work with. A combination of spring and fall bloomers would be helpful; and any kind of small tree seedling or shrub would be great!

The idea of this lesson is to establish long term phenology plots that students can track through the year, and other students can follow through ensuing years, as well as establish their own plots. Ideally, this works best if you have a place at the schoolyard that can remain undisturbed. Students also learn a few basic ecological research skills involving plot layout and data collection. Students can learn about science that is not necessarily experimental in nature; science that involves monitoring conditions and correlating them to other factors. Phenology has to do with how abiotic factors, such as temperature, affect biotic factors, such as plant flowering. The students will lay out their own plots, map them, identify key plants to track, mark those plants, and collect data about them and the plot on a regular basis. Skills they will learn include field sketching, landmark identification, scale mapping, compass use, plant identification (using field guides or dichotomous keys), the concept of phenology, and data collection and management skills. Students can work in small groups of two or three. The lesson is introduced with a "map your seat" activity. After the students master that concept, they will go outside into your schoolyard. Student groups will choose their plots, with your help. You the teacher will need to scout out likely looking spots prior to bringing the students out.

Phenophases to track for different groups of plants, such as wildflowers, grasses, or deciduous trees can be found on the Project Budburst Home Page. A really good lesson to do prior to this one would be the Project Budburst phenology lesson posted on the PolarTREC Resources page, contributed by Nancy Bigelow: Even if you don't have time to set up that activity, reading through the Project Budburst ( webpages is very helpful in helping students understand phenology.



Make a rough sketch map of the room that includes where you sit, or where you have placed something of yours, maybe your water bottle; add in as much detail as necessary so that someone else can pick out the landmarks and find where your seat or item is located. When everyone is done, turn in sketches to teacher, who then redistributes them to students for them to try and identify whose seat is whose by their map. What was the most helpful part of the sketch? What were some of the things that made your sketch useful? Were any of the sketches impossible to use and you were unable to find the item? What made the map difficult or unreliable?


Present the concept of mapping for ecological fieldwork purposes. Show a few slides from Toolik Field Station showing established long term plots with photographs and field maps. (attached). Show how to make a field map, discussing landmarks, cardinal orientation, and noting detailed features such as hills, slopes, valleys, trees, shrubs, Explain and demonstrate the project: In small groups of two or three:

  • Each establishes a 1m squared plot using measuring tapes or meter sticks
  • Draw a field sketch of their plot, noting orientation, slope, salient features
  • Do not trample your plot!

Identify at least two different plants in your plot that there are at least three specimens of, and that are healthy enough that you feel you can track them for at least a school year. It's okay if you are on a semester schedule; the next semesters' students can follow your plots and also establish new ones of their own. Use field guides, take pictures, use I-phone apps; whatever it takes to properly identify your plants to at least genus level. Identification to species is desired, but may take some time to wait for bloom or leaf to fully identify a particular plant. This could be a good time to teach dichotomous keys.

  • Show the tools needed for the job: flags for plot markers (or sticks with ribbon), meter sticks, clipboards, paper and rulers for field sketches and measurements, soil and air thermometers
  • Show how to use a compass to identify cardinal points. If you have GPS capabilities, each team could GPS one corner of their plot, noting which corner and marking it on their map
  • Show system of marking plants with colored beads and wire, and demonstrate the construction of a data sheet.
  • Demonstrate the code for the datapoints, and discuss ways to notate that "none of the observed phenophases are occurring", such as a dash (-). This is also a good time to discuss the difference between no data, missing data, and data.

Explore or DO:

Student teams will each establish their own 1m squared plots in an area of the schoolyard that can be relatively easy to reach, and easy to leave undisturbed. There should be several perennial plants included in the plot, native or cultivated, depending on what you've got to work with. A combination of spring and fall bloomers would be helpful; small tree or shrub seedlings are also fine.

For each plot:

  1. Make a map. You will need to draw a final map to scale. Make sure you can indicate cardinal points on your plot. It will be helpful to have some plots facing south and some north, if you are lucky enough to have a slope to work with. Make some general notes about your plot: is it dry, damp, shady, sunny, hilly, flat, sloping, heavily vegetated, sparsely vegetated, and other important features you might notice.
  2. Mark several landmarks in your plot that you can readily identify. There might be a small hill or depression, a plant or two that really stands out, or evidence of animals such as burrows, mounds, or even ant hills. To the best of your ability given the season, identify your landmarks; if they are plant or animal, genus species level would be great!
  3. Note the date and time. You will need to use Julian dates in order to make comparisons of number of days between events, etc.
  4. Choose at least two different species of flowering plants or small trees in your plots, ones that you can find at least two or three individual plants.
  5. Devise a system to mark your plants, using beads and wire that will enable you and other students to find your plants year after year. For example: For a birdsfoot violet, you might have 3 plants. Choose a bead color, such as navy blue, that will always represent this plant. Mark your first individual with one blue bead, the second with two, and the third with three. Another common plant in your plot might be a dandelion. For that, you could use yellow beads. Again, mark individual plants with one, two, or three beads.
  6. Mark your plants with the wire and beads according to your plan.
  7. On your map, draw in where each individual plant that you have marked is located. Be sure you have the map oriented correctly, and you might even want to make a few measurements to better mark the distance from the plot borders to where your plants are located.
  8. Make note of the phenological stage (or not) of your plants.
  9. Construct a spreadsheet with your plants on it. You'll have to devise a common code for the phenological stages. Use one from Budburst, National Phenology network, Globe, or your own, depending on future uses of your data. You also might want to put in abbreviations for the scientific or common name. Refer to the attached spreadsheet for what data might look like.

The information you are going to record about your plant could include : First Leaf Bud: FLB First Flower Bud: FFB Full Leaf Expansion: FLE First Flower Open: FFO Fruit: F First Color Change: FCC 50% Color: HC (Half Color) 50% Leaf Fall: HLF (half Leaf Fall)

Make sure you have a way to show "none of the above" such as a dash. It's best to agree upon an explanation for each phenophases. Write up a key that includes your phenophases and their codes, and the agreed upon explanation for what each phenophase includes. The information from the Project Budburst webpage includes key phenophases and explanations for wildflowers, grasses, deciduous trees, and others.

Check your plots as often as you can during very active times of growth. Check them at least once a week, even if not a lot of growth is occurring. You can always make notes about other plot characters, such as air temperature, soil temperature, most recent rainfall and amount. Once an observable phenophase is occurring, daily checks might be in order.


Enter data regularly, share on class spreadsheet such as Google Docs or in Dropbox. Research effects of climate change on plant life, and relationship between a selected plant and its pollinator, animal that relies on it for food or cover, etc. What problems could occur? Compile your class data seasonally. These plots can be used for multiple seasons for comparison of phenology patterns. New student groups could establish new plots nearby, and other plants could be added to the mix to look at as needed. Contribute to a national phenology database such as Project Budburst, National Phenology Network, or others.


Students can monitor several key plants for project Budburst, GLOBE phenology; either at home or elsewhere in the schoolyard. A great way to get started with Project Budburst is to follow the lesson plan in the PolarTREC Resources, submitted by Nancy Bigelow:



Check that each team has a readable field map, transferred to a to scale plot map on their graph paper. Each team needs a written description of their plot to include:

  • Measurements, orientation, salient features, chosen plants to track, and general overview of plot's characteristics, features of nearby terrain, etc.
  • Properly constructed spreadsheet for data collection
  • Key identifying plants and marking pattern
  • Written paragraph describing what they are doing and why they are doing it
  • A neat and well laid out plot with plants properly identified and marked

As time progresses ensure:

  • Spreadsheets maintained
  • Summary reports generated: can summarize data, graph air and soil temps, measure soil moisture, rainfall amounts
  • Draw conclusions from data
  • Research other phenology events and predict outcomes
  • Many other ideas you and your students will come up with!


Susan Steiner at: ssteiner76 [at] Mapping lesson adapted from: Creating a Scale Map, copyright 2006 by Judith A. and Gary Robert Muschla. Many thanks to Research Assistant Carolyn Livensperger with the Tundra Nutrient Seasonality Project at Toolik Field Station. Carolyn's phenology work inspired this lesson plan, and her assistance with the details was much appreciated!


  • 9-12
  • Content Standard A: Science As Inquiry:
  • Content Standard F: Science In Personal and Social Perspectives:
  • Content Standard G: History and Nature of Science:
  • a. Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • b. Understandings about scientific inquiry
  • c. Natural resources
  • d. Environmental quality
  • f. Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
  • a. Science as a human endeavor
  • b. Nature of scientific knowledge

Other Standards

North Carolina Standards

BIOLOGY Bio.2.1 Analyze the interdependence of living organisms within their environments.
Bio.2.2.1 Infer how human activities (including population growth, pollution, global warming, burning of fossil fuels, habitat destruction and introduction of nonnative species) may impact the environment.

EARTH/ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE EEn.2.6.1 Differentiate between weather and climate.
EEn.2.6.2 Explain changes in global climate due to natural processes.

Resource Details

Author(s): Susan Steiner
Related Expeditions:
Related Members:


  • meter sticks or measuring tapes
  • flags or other types of markers
  • small colored beads and wire for marking individual plant stems. Five to ten different colored beads, with wire to string them on, depending upon how many different plants students will be monitoring
  • clipboards and plain paper for field sketches
  • compasses, metric rulers, graph paper
  • Air and soil thermometers
  • Field guides or any way to identify major flora in your plot
  • GPS capabilities would be wonderful for noting locations of individual plots



Completion time

More than a week

Grade Level

Middle School and Up


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