Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Field Guide to Campus Trees

You could say that the idea for Penn Charter’s eBook, A Field Guide to Campus Trees, grew organically.

The project, a student-published, multimedia electronic book now available on iTunes, sprang from the initial collaboration of art, science and technology teachers seeking to combine the disciplines of science, mathematics and fine arts, and expose students to 21st century tools for expression and content creation.

With the support of a Penn Charter VITAL grant, the teachers explored how Upper School students could create media-rich resources that could be shared with younger students. The first product of that VITAL collaboration was The Philadelphia Bestiary, an eBook about animals that was rich with artwork, podcasts and video, all created by ninth grade students based on their research and visits to animals at the Philadelphia Zoo.

The Bestiary project was such a success in interdisciplinary learning and self-publishing that teachers looked for another theme with some of the same elements. For their second venture, they took a look at the ninth grade science curriculum, specifically the plant genetics project in Biology. And they took a look out the window.

Penn Charter’s beautiful 47-acre campus provided an accessible, rich source for A Field Guide to Campus Trees, a second eBook, now also available on iTunes. The project made connections among plant genetics, weather patterns, mathematics, digital animation, design, audio recording and the fine arts.

The completed eBook, which students worked on for their ninth grade year, is a series of photographs, drawings, cyanotypes, radio plays, and one-minute animations with sound scores that illustrate each tree and the weather it experienced in a 24-hour period. For this enormous, multilayered project, students used Toon Boom Animation, GarageBand, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere.

The ninth grade student authors, the Class of 2017, began with a visit to Awbury Arboretum, where they explored elements of art and design through botanical and landscape studies. They made sketches, relief rubbings, photographs and sound recordings. They explored color, light and shadow, texture, form, positive and negative space, and photographic concepts such as depth of field and camera angles.

Back at PC, students each chose a tree on campus. They studied, identified and photographed the leaves, bark, buds and fruits; made drawings; and created graphic designs and cyanotypes for the eBook.

Science teachers showed them how to collect weather data from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration website. Snow, rain, wind, sunrise – it’s all recorded hourly by longitude and latitude. So the students determined the longitude and latitude of each tree and translated 24 hours of weather data into 720 frames of digital animation, which equals one minute of animation. (Yes, there’s math, too!) Think of it as a creative weather report.

Students wrote and recorded sound scores for the short films, using found objects, instruments and help from friends who performed the music, along with digital sound effects.

They also wrote and performed a radio play for each tree – an imaginative voice-over as if the tree is telling its story.

Grace Eberwine wrote a radio play for a white paper birch along the bus lane: “... I cherish every breeze that comes my way. I also enjoy seeing all the little kids that wait for their busses at the end of the day. Yet they always pick at my bark. They don’t do that to any of my sisters, though, so why me? It really hurts when they do that, and it takes time to grow back.”

The teachers have moved on to other innovative projects, many of which are informed by what they experienced with the two eBook projects. The student authors, now seniors, will graduate this June, on the back patio, near the American Beech.

Enjoy the free download of the Class of 2017 eBook, A Field Guide to Campus Trees, available on iTunes.

This story first appeared in Penn Charter magazine.

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