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Field Trip to San Bruno

A Journey Back in Time to an Aboriginal Prairie

Lesson plan by Mardi Sicular-Mertens


General Information
Objectives
  Background Information
Procedure
Assessment
Materials
Possible Extensions

Additional Reading:

General Information:

Locations:  

  1. Weedy field in empty lot or wasteland on or near school campus.
  2. San Bruno Mountain State and County Park: Prairie off of Summit Trail or any native prairie in California

Time Allotment:  

  1. Activity one: Approximately thirty minutes.
  2. Activity two: One school day, including travel time and hike.

Grade Level:  9-12

Objectives:

To contrast a weedy annual grassland of introduced species with an undisturbed, ancient plant community of native bunchgrasses and wildflowers

Background Information:

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, grasslands very different from those of today dominated the landscape of the Bay Area. If we could go back in time and walk through these ancient California stands of grasses, what would we experience?

The native grasses of California are perennial bunchgrasses. They lived for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, resistant to drought, fire, and grazing mammals; they were green year round, with roots up to eighteen feet deep, forming a clumpy discontinuous texture, providing nurturance between for native wildflowers.

The Spanish brought grasses from Spain and the wider Mediterranean, annual grasses which live only for one season, grow close together in continuous fields, and out-compete the native grasses and flowers. Native perennial grasslands in California are among the most endangered ecosystems in the United States: close to 90% have been replaced with the European grasses.

Small examples of these beautiful native grasslands do exist: one such can be found at San Bruno Mountain State and County Park.

Before taking the field trips, the students should do in class exercises in careful qualitative observation. 


Procedure:

Activity one: Walk through the weedy wasteland. Stand still and describe the look of the ground around your feet. Describe the general spacing of plants, the amount of bare soil, the smells and sounds and feel of the place. 
Now choose three grass plants to describe in detail. Describe the size of the clump of grass, its color and height, and its seeds. 

Activity two: Travel to the small parking lot at the Ridge Trail on San Bruno Mountain. Take a hike along the trail for a mile or two. When your teacher instructs you, stand still and describe the look of the ground around your feet. As above, describe the general spacing of plants, the amount of bare soil, the smells and sounds and feel of the place.
Now choose three grass plants to describe in detail. Describe the size of the clump of grass, its color and height, and its seeds.

Note: Grasslands are best visited in spring, April-May.

Assessment:

Organizing the data:  The students should make a table for each sample set, showing plant name and mean percent canopy cover for each plant.  The students will then make three graphs, one for each sample set.  The x axis consists of plant names, and the y axis of mean percent canopy cover.  The plants must be listed in order from highest mean percent cover to lowest mean percent cover for each plant type at each distance from the road.

The students should write a conclusion, describing their basic findings for each sample set and making generalizations from their graphs.  What patterns do they see?  Can they suggest any possible reasons for the differences? 


Materials:

Notebook

Pencil or Pen


Possible Extensions:

Show students slides of six common native grasses: Nassella pulchra, Deschampsia cespitosa, Elymus glaucus, Festuca rubra, Muhlenbergia rigens, and Elymus condensata.

Students make observations and a drawing from each slide, then each group of three students is given six plant samples to identify from their own descriptions.


Note: This lesson can be adapted to fit any areas with the following plant communities:
1. Annual exotic grassland 2. Native perennial grassland

Additional Reading:

Chase, Agnes. First Book of Grasses. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. : 1964.

Crampton, Beecher. Grasses in California. University of CA Press, Berkeley, CA: 1974. 

McClintock, Elizabeth. A Flora of San Bruno Mountains. CA Native Plant Soc.: 1990.