Fourth Grade State Projects and Our Native Species

All teachers are extremely busy, with ever-increasing demands to cover standardized test material. Despite this, they find creative ways to inspire their students to learn. The following exercise is based on a project I did in Northville, Michigan with Susan Bryant, one of many great teachers with whom I’ve enjoyed working. I give it to you as a “kernel,” to be nurtured however you see fit. Share it with a teacher or do a similar exercise at home.By Celia Larsen

In Michigan, and in many other states, fourth graders begin to learn the geography and history of the United States. Many teachers have their students complete a “state project.” Usually, the students each draw a poster of their chosen state and, invariably, they include the state bird and state tree. Sometimes they even include the state flower and insect.

The children often erroneously assume that their particular state bird or tree lives only in that state. And they often make the mistake of thinking the bird or tree is not found in their home state. Did you know that all states, with the single exception of Hawaii, have chosen native trees to represent their state? What a great opportunity to teach students about many of our wonderful native species!

The simple mapping exercise described below can also help them learn about the relationship of geographical boundaries and ecological boundaries, and about specialist and generalist species (specialists have very narrow habitat requirements, whereas generalists have a more or less ubiquitous distribution). Of course, you wouldn’t need to use those rather unwieldy terms. Just seeing the maps that they create will visually impress the concepts upon the students. Better yet, follow up the mapping exercise with a walk around the school campus or neighborhood to collect leaves from as many state trees as you can.

Project Map by Cena Larsen

What you will need

  • Tree identification books with species distribution maps
  • (e.g., Audubon Field Guides). The number of books will depend on whether or not you want the entire class working on the mapping at once. Try to be sure to have books that will cover both eastern and western species. If your school library does not have field guides, you may be able to borrow them from your community library, or you might ask the PTA or local Mothers Club to purchase the books for the library. The students could also search on the web, especially for species like Hawaii’s Kukui tree).
  • Bird identification books with species distribution maps (same as above).
  • Black and white maps of the United States (one for each student).
  • Colored pencils.

How to proceed

  • Have each student look up his or her tree species, using the common name in the book’s index. Have them approximate the distribution shape on their map and shade it in with a colored pencil or devise a symbol to represent the distribution.
  • Have each student look up his or her bird species and approximate the bird’s distribution on their United States map in a color different from the one they used for the tree’s distribution. Decide ahead of time if you want them to shade both summer and winter distributions, or just pick one depending upon where you live.
  • Be prepared to hear comments like, “Wow, I need to sharpen my pencil again! – Robins live all over the United States!” or “I’m done because the black hills spruce is only in this tiny spot between South Dakota and Wyoming.”
  • Ask them if their tree or bird might live in their home state. Have they seen the tree or bird in their community? Do you have any of the trees growing on your school campus? Go out and visit them if you can.
  • After looking at their maps you may want to discuss the relationship of the political, geographical, and ecological boundaries (e.g., does the bird’s range stop at the Rocky Mountains or the Mississippi River?). And you might want to talk about which birds and trees seem to be specialists and which might be generalists. (Specialists have very narrow habitat requirements, whereas generalists have a more or less ubiquitous distribution).

Some interesting state tree facts

  • All states, except Hawaii, have chosen native trees.
  • Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the most popular species, chosen by four states (New York, Vermont, Wisconsin, and West Virginia).
  • Cottonwood (Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming), tulip tree (Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee) and dogwood (Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia) are tied for second most popular.
  • Pine is the most popular genus with eight different species chosen.
  • Oak is the next most popular genus with four or five species.
  • Pecan (Texas is the only hickory representative.)
  • Notably missing: American beech is not chosen by any state.
  • Michigan is home to 14 different species representing 25 states (10 of which are growing on my son and daughter’s school campus).

Botanical Resources for the Education Community
Noting that, “Today’s students are so busy that they do not stop and view what is in their environment,” Kathy Gann of Stephens High School in Stephens, Arkansas, has set up a web site about leaves.