Phenology Plot Project

Suzanne Savanick Hansen, Macalester College, adapted from an original activity by Jim Farrell, St. Olaf College.
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Initial Publication Date: September 15, 2010


Students pick one place in the Carleton Arboretum to spend at least 20 minutes observing the biodiversity in that one place at least six times during the term. Students must record observations visually and with the written word and share their final projects with the class.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

The goals of the project are to gain observation skills, learn about local biodiversity, and document the arrival of spring in one location over the term.

Context for Use

This was used in a conservation biology class. The activity was introduced at the beginning of the class. The final report was due at the end of the class.

Description and Teaching Materials

Initial assignment handout (Microsoft Word 24kB Jun7 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Make sure to require an introduction and conclusion with the final project. Also, make time in class for the students to share their plot projects.

When I used this assignment, I sent them to see what they would observe first without much guidance. I collected their first assignments and read them. They tended to notice trees and shrubs, but missed the large scale (topography etc.) and the small scale (microclimates, insects, etc.).

I then gave them some guidance:

  • First, make observations at the large scale: What is the weather like? (You can check Carleton's weather station information here: What is the overall topography of your area? What are the dominant plants in your area?

  • Then look at the medium scale: What habitats are you near? Are you in the edge of a habitat or in the middle?

  • Then look at the small scale: Turn over a leaf or log? What is underneath? What microclimates are apparent in your site?

Ask the students to observe alone. They will not notice as much if they have someone with them.

Make sure that they go to the same place. It is much harder to make things up if they have to describe the same place. The visual depictions also help with keeping the assignment honest.


I collected the first rounds of assignments and made comments on them. At the end, I used a matrix as a basis for my assessments. The best assignments described their observations in detail and had good visual depictions. They had complete and descriptive introductions and analyzed the changes they observed. Many students found the assignment powerful. Several wanted to discuss their observations with their peers.

References and Resources