Project ACORN Engages Children with Native Plants


Native species vs. invasive species is an important topic among environmentalists, ecologists, wildlife biologists, in schools, etc. As a matter of fact, invasive species was the current event topic for the 2016 Envirothon competition. What are native species and invasive species? Why does it matter which ones grow in our local areas? What can we do to help our local environment?

Native species plants play an important role in our ecosystems. Naturally occurring in a region in which they evolved, native species plants support pollinators and local wildlife including insects such as bees, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. Native species plants are also important in our economies, and they affect our well-being as humans. Native plants have adapted over time to various environmental and social influences.

An invasive plant species is a plant or fungus that is not native to a specific location (an introduced species), and which has a tendency to spread and cause damage to the environment, human economy or human health. According to The Nature Conservancy, "The estimated damage from invasive species worldwide totals more than $1.4 trillion – 5% of the global economy."

Realizing the important role of native species to local areas, Peggy Carnahan, Kent Page and Augustine Frkuska teamed up to start Project ACORN (Alamo-area Children Organized to Replant Natives) in San Antonio, Texas. Peggy Carnahan has been a lifelong science educator and is currently Director of the Center for Mathematics and Science Education at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. She believes very strongly in Project ACORN and its protocols because it allows the whole community to learn about environmental awareness and how things can be done differently to make an impact on our environment.

Starting out with eleven schools, Project ACORN has now grown to have more than thirty local schools participating. Peggy believes that we all need to go outside, enjoy looking around, and learn about what we see around us. By teaching this to our youth, she says that they have already seen improved state testing scores, and hope that it will bring about lifelong careers for some.

While interviewing Peggy at a Project ACORN learning session with students from two different schools, I was able to see just what these students are learning and how they are applying this knowledge. Understanding the environment and how it "works" is very important. These students are able to collect data from the environment and determine the overall health from their findings. In this learning session, the students were divided into small groups where the students from one school, who have been involved with the program for a while, were teaching the other students from the new school. One group talked about planting native plants and trees and used a high tech meter to perform soil analysis while discussing their results to determine what steps, if any, should be taken.

Another group was testing the cloudiness of the water using a turbidity tube, and when asked why it is important to know this, their response was, "So we can know how much sun reaches the bottom of the body of water for the plants to get energy from the sun, and they can give out oxygen to the fish." One group was walking around observing plants and seeing how many insects they could find, another group was observing clouds and talking about climate change, and another group was using GPS receivers to find locations and discussing the effects of impervious surfaces in large cities where water, litter, etc. travels into drains and is carried right into the river which flows into the Gulf.

Project ACORN is a great STEM program because it can be continued from year to year, plus it has proven to be good for all students. Peggy described one child with Asperger's Syndrome who has excelled with Project ACORN and has become a leader at his school. Not only for students, it is a learning for the whole community including landscape maintenance crews, developers, school systems, etc. For anyone interested in the efforts of Project ACORN and applying some of this to your local area, Peggy says the main thing for a science educator to know is what plants and trees are native to your local area. Knowing that, she says, the Project ACORN protocols are adaptable and can be applied to your local area by identifying and swapping out the native plants and trees. If you would like to know more about the protocols of Project ACORN, visit their website.