By. Katherine Johnson, Youth Education Director, Chicago Botanic Garden


Following best practices for teaching life sciences in the classroom can be challenging, especially for schools in urban settings. Project BudBurst is a citizen science program that can help educators overcome some of those challenges because it connects science content with authentic research and gives students purpose for learning about plants. As a science investigation project, it has the potential to transform how students at all grade levels learn about life cycles and clear up misconceptions about the natural world that are becoming more pervasive in our society. As an action project, it empowers students to make a positive contribution to science knowledge and to help the planet.


Best Practice in Science Education

In A Framework for K-12 Science Education, (2012) the National Research Council stated:


Scientists and science teachers agree that science is a way of explaining the natural world.


The Framework continues:


…science is both a set of practices and the historical accumulation of knowledge.


Any education that focuses predominantly on the detailed products of scientific labor— the facts of science—without developing an understanding of how those facts were established or that ignores the many important applications of science in the world misrepresents science and marginalizes the importance of engineering.


In other words, good science teaching requires that students learn by doing science—by performing experiments, analyzing data, and so forth—in connection with learning the scientific facts that explain their observations and experiences. Furthermore, students need to see their own investigations in the context of the history of science exploration that resulted in the body of scientific knowledge we accept today. It is empowering for students to realize that they can contribute to that body of knowledge by using the same scientific practices scientists have applied throughout history.


(source: Chicago Botanic Garden)

A student records information about mayapples blooming in the woods.


Challenges with Teaching Life Sciences

Learning about life sciences, therefore, should involve observing and analyzing real plants and animals. It leaves a science teacher with two options: keep classroom specimens or take students on a field trip to study the school yard or other site. Classroom pets and plants can be problematic because they require ongoing care and cost money. Going outside is not possible for some classes. Even when a class is able to use the school yard or garden, many educators feel more confident teaching in the classroom. Moreover, studying plants and animals takes time, and not just an extended class period, but weeks and even months to see results.


Instead of growing beans through their life cycle, most teachers resort to using a diagram in a text book to explain the life cycles of plants, frogs, and caterpillars. Students learn to identify and sequence the stages, but they do not learn to associate those stages with seasons or months of the year.


The timing of life cycle events is critical to understanding how things work and interconnect on our planet, and lack of this knowledge leads to peculiar situations. An educator at a children’s garden reported that during a mild week in January, three different visitors approached her to ask “Why aren’t there any tadpoles in the pond?” They did not realize that toad reproduction is an annual event, and that it would make no sense for toads to lay eggs in a freezing pond.


Another garden educator noticed that a school had requested a field trip to the prairie area in February, hoping she could bring her students “to see lots of beautiful flowers and things.” It had not occurred to her that the garden’s outdoor spaces were dormant in winter just like those in her own backyard.


These incidents underscore the need for science education to connect real world and real time experiences with science content. Project BudBurst provides the means and the incentive for students to observe and think about plants in the context of their location and in real time.


Project BudBurst

Project BudBurst and other citizen science projects have sprung up as a way to engage the public in authentic research. These programs enable scientists to amass more observational data for their research than they could do alone.


Project BudBurst is hosted and operated by the Chicago Botanic Garden and is one of the few citizen science projects that focus on plants. Project BudBurst asks the public to help scientists determine if plants are being affected by climate change. Ordinary citizens, including students ages 10 and up, observe and record dates for plant bloom times and other stages of a plant’s life (called phenophases), and upload the information to a national database online. This database has been collecting and storing phenological data since 2007.


Dr. Amy Iler and Dr. Paul CaraDonna work in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s conservation science program, studying the impacts of climate change on ecosystems. These scientists will use bloom dates from Project BudBurst to contribute to research on how climate change affects interrelationships between plants and their pollinators. Students in grades 5 and up (and younger students with the assistance of a teacher or parent) can help scientists like Dr. Iler and Dr. CaraDonna with their research by participating in Project BudBurst.


(source: Chicago Botanic Garden)

Dr. Iler and Dr. CaraDonna study the life cycles of plants and their pollinators.


In the process of helping scientists, students will improve their own understanding of plant life cycles and why it is important to pay attention to plants. Project BudBurst supports student achievement of academic standards, including the Next Generation Science Standards.


Project BudBurst at Highcrest Middle School

Educators at the Chicago Botanic Garden have been teaching the sixteen 5th grade classes at Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette, Illinois how to do Project BudBurst for the past few years. The program enriches the curriculum study of climate science and makes use of the schoolyard native prairie garden. Parents and community order ambien sleeping pills members who maintain the garden have been thrilled to see their effort put to practical use, and have noticed students paying more attention to the garden since the program began. Students and teachers were excited about participating in a program that they had read about in their climate science textbooks. Garden educators were pleased to introduce students to the scientists who are doing important work studying plants and climate change so close to their school.


(source: Chicago Botanic Garden)

Two girls find their milkweed in “Full Fruit” stage.


How to Get Involved

Participating in Project BudBurst is simple. Teachers or individual students can register on the Project BudBurst website and add a location with identifying information. They compare the list of “Plants to Observe” with plants growing in their area and select one or more to watch over time. The website provides information about each plant so that participants can become more familiar with its phenophases. A phenophase is a distinct event in the annual life cycle of a plant or animal in relation to changes in seasons and climate. Phenophases for all wildflowers are:

  • First Flower
  • Full Flower
  • First Ripe Fruit
  • Full Fruit
  • All Leaves Withered


(Phenophases for grasses, shrubs, and trees are a little different.)


(Courtesy of Project BudBurst)

This illustration shows the phenophases for red columbine.


Participants download and print a report form. They use this form to record information about the plant, its location, details about the surroundings, and dates that they observe each phenotype.


There are two kinds of reports: a single report for a one-time observation and a regular report for watching the plant over time. Observing a plant growing over multiple seasons and recording it on a regular form gives students a complete picture of the plant’s life cycle and is the better choice for learning, but the single report is a good way to get started without being overwhelmed keeping track of the plant for several months. Because most of the growing season happens during summer break, students might do a single report at school to get the hang of it, and then take a regular report home to watch a particular plant over the summer.


Students may need assistance completing the report forms the first time. It asks participants to give the area a “Site Name,” so teachers should be prepared to explain what this means and either provide the classroom site name (e.g., Lincoln School Garden) or suggest that students give their individual site a name such as “Green Family Backyard.” Longitude and latitude readings may be unfamiliar and require explanation. Students may not understand the term “irrigation” and they may need help determining the distance of their plant from paved areas.


After completing a single report or at the end of the season of gathering data for a regular report, students can log-in to the Project BudBurst website and follow the directions to upload their data, and call themselves citizen scientists. Later, they can look at the collection of data and analyze it for trends.


For more detailed directions, download this PDF: Getting Started with Project BudBurst.


Project BudBurst with Dandelions

Teachers who want to start with something easy are encouraged to have students observe common dandelions. Dandelions can be found almost everywhere and will be familiar to students because of their fluffy-white fruits that children like to pick and blow into the air.  (Note: technically speaking, the white balls are the dandelion “fruits” which contain the seeds on the pointed tips, even though we commonly refer to the fluff balls as “seeds.”)


Phenophases can be easily distinguished on a dandelion:

  • A dandelion flower bud transforms from bud into fully opened, yellow blossom overnight. Students who are watching the plant will have a definite date for “First Flower” on their plant.
  • Three or more open blossoms can be considered “Full Flower” stage.
  • After pollination, the flower closes as the fruits ripen. There is no guess work in determining the date of the “First Ripe Fruit,” either—this is when the fluffy white ball opens for the first time on the plant.
  • When there are three or more fluff balls, the plant is in “Full Fruiting” stage.
  • It may be difficult to establish the “All Leaves Withered” date, but this date is less critical than those of the flowering and fruiting stages.


Dandelions continue to flower and develop fruits into the fall, but their show is much less dramatic as the season progresses. They are a great introduction to studying phenology and can become the springboard to recognizing life cycle patterns in all other plants.


Whether students do Project BudBurst as a school-year classroom project or observe a plant on their own over the summer, this citizen science program puts plant science in the context of authentic, valuable research. It enhances science education and attainment of learning goals. It provides good reasons to pay attention to plants and appreciate how they are vital to our lives.


About the Author

Katherine Johnson is the Youth Education Director at the Chicago Botanic Garden where she oversees student field trips, teacher professional development, and high school science career programs. She believes that visiting a public garden a should be #1 on the list of 101 Places You Gotta See Before You’re 12 (by Joanne O’Sullivan, 2006). She feels that young people should go early and go often to public gardens, national parks, and other natural spaces because they cannot really learn about plants in the classroom alone – not in a meaningful way. This is why she has spent over twenty years creating and delivering fun learning experiences for youth, families, school groups, and teachers at public gardens. Katherine holds a Master’s degree in teaching in the field of museum education. Her greatest accomplishment has been raising three daughters who love plants, nature, science, and visiting public gardens.