Parents around the world are developing a deep appreciation of and respect for school teachers. The following is a recycled account of a time when I found myself having to operate outside my own wheelhouse by teaching a group of third graders about ecology. Lichens were the answer.
I had agreed to oversee an after-hours science club at a local elementary school. The experience was simultaneously challenging and gratifying. Third graders make ideal students. They don’t yet have in-depth knowledge about any topic, including science, and have nothing to unlearn. What they have in abundance are curiosity and unfettered imaginations, which lead to open-minded thinking.
One day I had planned to take the science club outside to see what living plants or animals we could find associated with trees in the schoolyard. But the day was going to be rainy and cold. I would need an indoor exercise. I went outside and within minutes picked up 20 small limbs. Each had lichens growing on it. Although lichens look like a single organism, they actually represent a complex relationship between fungi and algae.
Lichens became the science topic for the day. I asked the students if they knew what scientists who study lichens are called. Up went a hand. “Lichenologists.” I was a bit surprised and asked how he knew that. “I didn’t really know,” he said. “I just guessed. Someone who studies science is a scientist, and someone who studies biology is a biologist. I assumed they had to be ‘ists’ of some sort.”
Were it not for a love of learning instilled by some teachers, we might not have anyone who wants to go to college and become an “ist.” Kids love lichens, and as for the science club, I would not be surprised if at least one of them becomes a lichenologist, which led to another query. “Why don’t more biologists become lichenologists?” Good question indeed.
For the indoor session with lichens, I had plenty of sticks to go around so everybody had one or more to look at up close. I told them we were going to be like biologists and ask some basic questions about lichens that any scientist might ask – who, what, why, where, when and how? They had already answered the “who studies lichens” question with “lichenologist,” and hands shot up immediately all over the room when I invited them to ask other questions. Someone asked, “Where do lichens live?” From the Arctic to deserts to cities, they can be found on virtually every tree in the world, as well as on other flat surfaces. The lichen known as reindeer moss is eaten by caribou in northern alpine and arctic regions. The lichen carpet in some regions of tundra provides the major source of food and nutrients for the big herbivores, which in turn are a primary food source for wolves. Odd to think that such an awesome predator ultimately depends on a combination of a fungus and algae for its survival.
“When do they grow?” Year round. Their ubiquity and constancy make lichens ideal organisms to show students in a classroom: anyone teaching science can always find plenty. “How do they get their food?” Lichens are composed of algae, which has chlorophyll that is able to get energy from the sun. “What colors are they?” The children answered that themselves as they pointed out lichens and other fungi on the limbs. They found red, gray, green, white, black, yellow, blue and purple. The colorful lichens fascinated the students – as well as me. Seeing through the eyes of children ...
The lesson about lichens proved to be entertaining and instructive for teacher and students alike. You need not be a parent, child or teacher to see how many lichens you can find in your neighborhood. Get outside. Stay 6 feet away from anyone who’s not a member of your household. Discover new ways to see the world.