IMAGE Magazine: Reading the Leaves

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    Glenn Kroh faces his students shaded by the sprawling branches of a stately tree behind him. In a calm voice, he addresses his biology class, excited to start the day.

    “This happens to be a live oak. Does that mean that other species of oaks that we are gonna see are dead?” he asks.

    The joke sets the tone for the morning as Kroh prepares to take his 24 students on a walk that he has done every year for the last 30 years. Kroh’s Natural History class, filled with majors and non-majors, wanders outside for a tree identification walk.

    This tradition takes students outside, away from the lab, and into the nature they learn about all semester.

    Students meander for about an hour around the academic side of campus and adjacent neighborhoods to identify tree species that are covered in the course.

    Kroh stops at each tree to explain characteristics, history and interesting facts about each species of tree.

    “Rather than taking transportation out to forests, I just realized that there were at least 20 different species of trees within a four block area of campus,” Kroh said.

    Glenn Kroh, an associate professor in the biology department, has lived only half a block from campus ever since he started teaching at the university in 1975. His backyard teems with different botanical species, native and exotic. He admits that he enjoys escaping to their presence after a long day.

    With a bachelor’s degree in botany and two higher degrees in plant ecology, Kroh has an eye for spotting plants.

    “From walking my golden retriever, I began to notice that there was a high diversity of trees. Several different species of oaks and trees from other countries like India and China,” Kroh said.

    The species around the area allowed Kroh to teach students about native Texas trees and other exotic species that they may never get to see otherwise.

    Kroh approaches each tree, props his hand against the bark, looks up at the branches and conveys the story of each species sprinkled with fun facts and anecdotes.

    Students examine the bark, acorns, differences in leaves and take part in a more interactive outdoor experience.

    Elizabeth Leach, a senior anthropology major, said she enjoyed the tree walk because she is a better hands-on learner.

    “I have always believed that experiences in learning are important, not just the information. Doing something with it, applying it, is really important,” Leach said.

    Students in the class, ranging from fashion merchandising majors to political science majors, also seemed to enjoy the lab and how it presented the information, she said.

    Kroh said students generally like the outdoor labs and learning about their surroundings. Others, he explains with a little laugh, are not what you call “earth people.”

    “You could probably tell that there were a few people that [being on the walk] wasn’t where they would like to be. But that is probably a better reason to make them go out and see the trees,” Kroh said.

    Extremely hot and sunny days, though, make the tree walk difficult for everyone. Kroh said he tries to keep everyone hydrated and brings water for the class.

    “One time when we were walking around the neighborhood, we turned the corner and there was this little kid with a lemonade stand. It was towards the end of the walk and everybody was really thirsty,” Kroh recalled about a hot spring afternoon.

    “Then they sold him out in about 5 minutes, and he sold all his lemonade. Probably went on to be a great business man. It was pretty funny,” he said.

    This same hot, dry Fort Worth weather has unfortunately killed many of Kroh’s tree examples along the walk over the years—especially the exotics.

    “I remember what trees were there when I first started. Most of the causalities are trees that don’t normally grow in this part of the country, and I kind of miss them because there are not too many of them around. So you lose some good material,” Kroh said.

    He explained that Fort Worth is a mixed prairie ecosystem with trees that grow mainly along waterways and ponds. Exotic species did not naturally develop in this ecosystem with this weather, and therefore have a harder time surviving.

    A female Green Ash, a Silver Maple, multiple American Elms and a Dogwood have died or been chopped down along the way. Currently, the Texas red oak, eastern red cedar and the pecan tree are not doing well.

    Despite difficulties navigating through new construction and the loss of some of his examples, Kroh still continues the tradition of taking students on this experiential lab close to campus.

    Kroh enjoys the fact that students walk away with a better feeling for their surroundings.

    Leach said, “It is so cool because now I can walk around campus and be like, ‘Guys, that’s a red oak!’”