Teachers study climate at MTU this week

HOUGHTON – Several teachers from the Midwest are at Michigan Tech University this week to learn about changes in the world and how to illustrate them for their students.

Nine middle and high school teachers from Michigan and Illinois are taking part in Tech’s global change institute, hosted by the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science.

During the weeklong institute, teachers are exploring issues such as climate change, ozone and carbon dioxide, land use change, exotic species and nitrogen deposition.

“They’re basically looking for climate change experience to help them with curriculum development,” said Evan Kane, assistant professor at the School of Forest Resource and Environmental Science.

Wednesday afternoon, the group toured the PEATcosm Experiment at the U.S. Forest Service Laboratory in Houghton. Using peat samples harvested from Minnesota, researchers are testing 24 mesocosms – four bins each of three different plant compositions and two water table levels.

The experiment is designed to see how the ability of plants to hold onto carbon will change in a warmer climate.

Kane said they’re expecting warming temperatures to lead to decreased water availability in summer. They also project greater instability in climate, with more periods of extreme rain contrasting with longer droughts.

“Basically, it’s going to get weirder,” he said.

The bins contain sedges, Ericaceae (heaths) or both. Of the two, sedges provide deeper roots and provide more oxygen. Kane said they’re hypothesizing wetter conditions would favor sedges, which would be better able to cope with an anaerobic environment.

Peat ecosystems are carbon-heavy, containing up to 30 percent of the world’s organic carbon despite having only up to 5 percent of the worlds land surface. The climate change could lower water tables, allowing even more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere.

The session ended with teachers making a small mesocosm of their own – not the cubic meter of Tech’s cubes, but a cut-open pop bottle – which they can take back with them.

Carrie Wilkinson, a sixth-grade math and science teacher at Grayling Middle School in downstate Grayling, said the sessions have been productive.

“I’m definitely getting more of an inquiry approach to the classroom, getting kids involved and asking questions,” she said.

One activity she’ll look to incorporate is their session on data analysis, which included graphs showing the amount of global ice cover.

“It goes over quite a long period of time, so it’ll be interesting for students to see that,” she said.