‘Talking’ trees on the Lowell School campus


The secret to being poplar: Lowell School students made a fun and informative celphone tour of the school’s “talking” trees. (Juana Arias/For The Washington Post)
October 8, 2012

When Yasmin Eisenhauer, a teacher at Lowell School in Washington, told her third-grade class last fall that they were going to make the trees on their school grounds talk, some of the students thought that sounded pretty weird.

“Are you crazy? How are we going to do this?” thought Lusya Mae Engen, now a fourth-grader at the school.

But the kids soon learned what their teacher meant.

Science and technology

“We’re trying to get people to interact with the trees through technology,” said Lusya, 9, from Washington.

First, each student got to pick his or her own tree anywhere on the school’s campus. Then, each student had to learn all about his or her tree: What type of tree it was, how fat its trunk was (that’s called the tree’s circumference), how tall it was, how the tree’s bark and leaves felt and looked, and during what season it bloomed or flowered.


Each tree has a different code or QR code that brings its recorded information to your phone. (Juana Arias/For The Washington Post)

Some of this information was hard to figure out. To find out how old a tree was, the students used the Internet and a math formula. To figure out how tall a tree was, the kids stood far enough away from the tree so that if they stood with their back to the tree, with their legs apart and looked through their legs, they could see the entire tree upside down. Then they measured how far it was from that spot to the trunk of the tree. That gave them an estimate of the height of the tree. It seems crazy, but the reason this works has to do with a type of math called trigonometry, which you will study in high school. The way it works is that using the measurements of angles and some trigonometry formulas, you can get an estimate of the tree’s height. It’s not precise, but it is a lot easier than measuring the tree by climbing it.

All that was the science — and math — part of the project.

Next the kids wrote what they had learned about their trees and they recorded their own voices talking as if they were their tree, telling people all about who they were. That was the technology part.

“We thought it would be really cool to connect technology with nature,” said Azur Walla, 10, from Silver Spring, another student in the class.

A tree-mendous project

The kids named their trees things like Dog ‘N‘ Woods, Harlo Tree and Freddy. They also added their own creative voices to the project, using made-up words like “tree-tastic” and “tree-mendous” in their recordings, and asked people looking at the trees to sing a song in their shade or give the trees a hug.

“My nickname is Charlotte,” Brooke Hart’s 101-year-old red maple tree says on the tour. “I was given this name by my friend Brooke. She is really nice and tries to visit me every day. What is your name?” Then “Charlotte” tells the listener all about her leaves, bark and how big she is. She ends by saying: “I hope you come back to visit with me because of course I can’t come to you.”

The project took all year to complete. The kids met about once a week to work on it. Now visitors can visit the Lowell campus during off-school hours and take the tree tour with their cellphones by calling a phone number that is on a sign next to 22 trees. (See box.)


Lowell school students created a tour of trees on their campus complete with cellphone interaction. (JUANA ARIAS/For The Washington Post)

With the fall season in full swing, now is a great time to check out the tree tour or take your own tree tour around your neighborhood. You too might find that trees do talk, and that they really are tree-tastic.

— Moira E. McLaughlin

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