For the past 20 years, Fermilab’s Education Office docents have taken school groups into the Fermilab prairie as a way for kids to learn about their local environment and to help keep track of plant species in Fermilab’s restored prairies. Over the past seven years, volunteers from the local community have also participated in these studies.
Starting on June 26, docents will take one such group of volunteers to a plot near Lederman Science Center to do a quadrat study, the same sort of activity the schoolchildren would do. The study involves framing a 1-by-1 square-meter area of land and identifying and counting every species found inside it. Groups of four volunteers will handle at most two frames each, and the frames will be used to make a grid for a map showing species distribution.
“They are being our citizen scientists by doing these counts,” said Sue Sheehan of the Education Office. “The big goal is to give people who are interested the opportunity to do field work.”
The data from the quadrat studies goes online in a public database. Local teachers often use the data as a classroom tool. Sheehan also hopes these data will help people have a stake in their environment.
“We’re enticing them to become stewards of the prairie,” Sheehan said.
Once the data are available online, volunteers can track changes in the landscape from year to year. Sometimes the quadrat studies have revealed major changes in the prairie. Sheehan recalled the time when volunteers found a single instance of a plant called rattlesnake master.
“This is an interesting prairie plant because it looks like something you would find in the desert,” she said. “We were protective of it so we could show it to students.”
Within a few years, according to the quadrat studies, rattlesnake master became a common plant in that prairie, reflecting possible changes in the soil or climate.
“Every year we see a more and more diverse prairie,” Sheehan said.
Fermilab employees are invited to join in the fun. Several docents will be helping guide volunteers in the field. Sessions for the quadrat study will take place on June 26, July 16, and July 28, with a special session for employees taking place on August 16. For more information, please e-mail Sue Sheehan.