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Stanford Partner with Trees course allowed curiosity to go out on a limb

A course with origins in childhood wonder encourages students to think deeply about trees and the ideas they can inspire.

Growing up in small towns in India, biologist Devaki Bhaya recalls spending a lot of time climbing trees and, as she puts it, “indulging in all sorts of illegitimate activities.” Such freedom inevitably brought Bhaya face to face with many unknowns. And so, whenever she had a question, her parents made the hours-long trip to the library to find the answer.

A view from below the Methuselah Tree on Skyline Boulevard, near Woodside, California. It is believed to be the oldest and largest living tree in the Santa Cruz Mountains outside of Big Basin State Park. (Image credit: Johanna Flodin)

“I still remember my first book about tree identification, and how curious I was about them,” said Bhaya, who is a staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a professor, by courtesy, of biology at Stanford University. “That’s what I wanted to recreate for students. Not learning something because you have to know what a gene is and what the phyllotaxy of trees is, but because you get curious.”

To feed her own inquisitiveness and spark it in others, Bhaya developed and taught Partner with Trees in spring. Combining field trips, guest lectures, and an open-ended final project, the course was designed as an intentional contrast to how many students spent their time during the pandemic, off-campus and on Zoom. The class ventured to the California Academy of Sciences, Stanford’s own Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and the Peninsula’s Methuselah tree, a nearly-2,000-year-old coastal redwood.

“I wanted to use trees to develop different themes, from art to science, by taking leisurely walks on campus among the beautiful trees. I thought, ‘Let’s see if we can break down some of these silos between disciplines – or, at least, shake the doors,’” said Bhaya, whose own research is about photosynthesizing microbes and how they respond to multiple stressors.

Students majoring in Earth systems, material science, biology, computer science, and math learned about trees through the lenses of their own and many other disciplines.

“When I read the student evaluations of the course, I was thrilled that this unconventional approach to learning had appealed to most of the students and that they recommended it to their peers,” Bhaya said.

Across the myriad interests of the group, Bhaya noticed a unifying – and very familiar – hobby: During their walks, the students released some stress by climbing trees and shared stories about how climbing trees gave them a sense of peace and closeness to nature.

“There are people who ID trees with nomenclature and such but there’s a whole other way of knowing trees. When you climb trees, you get to know them by their shape and bark texture, you feel the difference between the soft wood of a redwood and the strong limbs of a coastal live oak as you climb your way out,” said Vince Pane, one of the course assistants and a PhD student in chemistry. Pane is also a woodworker and two-time competitor on American Ninja Warrior, which he trained for by climbing trees during the pandemic. “If you take time to pay attention to the trees, you’ll see every tree differently, and every space differently,” Pane added. “Trees are all around us and people know so little about them.”

From avocados to Apple

The Partner with Trees class outside Windhover Contemplative Center with guest lecturer, author Katie Holten. (Image credit: Katie Holten)

Guest lecturers in the course included Stanford biology Professor Noah Rosenberg, who explained how he sees evolutionary tree concepts in real trees, and author and environmentalist Katie Holten, whose book About Trees uses an alphabet of trees to probe our relationship with the natural world. Obi Kaufmann, a Bay area illustrator and author, (The California Field Atlas among others) regaled students with his philosophy and life stories while they walked around the Arizona Garden. Students also learned about agroforestry and sustainability at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm with director Patrick Archie, while planting avocado trees.

For the last lecture, the students spent time with mechanical engineering alum and arborist Dave Muffly, BS ’88, who has planted many oaks on campus and a variety of other trees around California, including 9,000 trees at Apple’s Cupertino campus.

Stanford alum Sairus Patel, BS ’91, also often joined the course and was integral to its organization and conception. Patel curates and maintains the Trees of Stanford Website.

An unrepeatable experience

At the end of the quarter, the students presented final projects that reflected the diverse interests of the invited lecturers and their own passions. A student from the Central Valley dove into the topic of tree crops, describing the problems and advantages of growing trees in California. Another student made three cherry bowls in the Product Realization Lab to accompany an illustrated history of the bowl. Two computer science students created a program to generate realistic 3D tree shapes. There was also an examination of what tree rings can really tell us, and other students planned to develop websites and gather information focusing on iconic trees on campus.

“It felt almost separate from courses I’ve been a part of before. It felt more like dancing, with the connection to surroundings and learning through experience,” said Pane, who is also a dancer. “Everyone was engaged and had something to add. Maybe that’s what can happen when you take a walk rather than hurrying to finish a worksheet or assignment.”

Students’ response to the course was overwhelmingly positive. “This is the most incredible course I have taken and likely will ever take,” one student wrote in their final course feedback. “Let yourself dive deep into the world of trees and take the unique opportunity to grow closer to the world around you.”

Although this course was successful and memorable, Bhaya does not expect to repeat it. As she sees it, the idea behind the course is not done growing. Bhaya is considering whether this multidimensional approach to learning and teaching could be the groundwork for a year-long course that culminates in a research project driven by student interests in trees, climate change, and sustainability.

“I promised myself I’d never teach the same class twice, Bhaya said, “because there are just so many areas that are fascinating to me and Introductory seminars allow one to explore without borders.”