Lee High IB Environmental Students Tackle Field Research

By Communication and Community Relations Staff
December 17, 2018

Does the distance from water affect the species diversity of plants?  What is the relationship between soil texture near a water source and one farther away?  Rachel Clausen’s International Baccalaureate (IB) Environmental Systems and Societies students at Lee High School will aim to answer these questions and more using field research gathered at Hidden Oaks Nature Center, part of their study of soil, water, and plants in Northern Virginia. 
student doing researchClausen challenged her students to select their own research questions, based on an environmental issue, to support their major research paper for the year. Over the summer, they completed articles on plants, soil, and water. In class, they participated in a meeting with professional scientists who work in the field of environmental science to learn more about their topics. In-class labs served as inspiration for the students, along with the two field trips and video conferences with select scientists. Once those steps were complete, each student proposed three potential research project questions.  Working with Clausen, students determined the best project for him or her based on their interest, the field trips, available materials, and IB rules.

While collecting samples and making observations at Hidden Oaks, the juniors and seniors got a hand from park staff, Fairfax county scientists for the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District and Stormwater, and Master Naturalists. Wading through the creek to collect water and soil, the students used probes, quadrats, and soil samplers, for a similar experience to that of professional scientists. They also collected samples of invertebrates, then identified and counted their specimens and calculated a diversity index. During their work, they were able to identify invasive and native plant species at Hidden Oaks and determine what percentage of each type of plant was visible all while avoiding poison ivy. Each student collected between 25 and 50 samples and data points to use in their research. And while on site, they were surprised to see the amount of erosion at the Hidden Oaks stream, and to see how different areas of the stream were impacted differently by that erosion.

Once the research, analysis, and conclusions were complete, the class evaluated their findings and determined what those results could mean for current environmental challenges such as invasive plants, erosion, and flooding. Clausen is challenging them to come up with suggestions on what can be done to solve these problems at the individual, school and local, and state levels. Once their final papers are submitted in late January, the students will have the opportunity to brainstorm individual and small group service and action projects.

“This project is much of the fourth quarter focus,” explains Clausen, who adds that the scientists who have been working with the students will be invited to be judges on final exam day when the students present information about their service project along with their reflections of what they have accomplished, using multimedia and interactive tools.

Students shared their observations of the field research experience.  “The scientists helped support my field research and deal with unexpected situations and results,” said Tsion.  Classmate Mariam added, “It was very helpful to work with experts because they helped when I was confused.”  Daniel agreed, “Operating a dissolved oxygen probe would have been a lot harder without expert help.”