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ORGANIZATION, MEMORY AIDS CAN HELP SPEED UP LEARNING

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I would like to know the names of all the wildflowers around Mirror Lake in the Uinta Mountains. I don't understand this motivation to learn their names. It isn't an assignment from school, and I'm too old for a Boy Scout merit badge. Maybe the motivation is part of the nostalgia I feel having spent summers working at Camp Steiner, a few miles beyond Mirror Lake on the Evanston, Wyo., highway. In those days I could name a few of the flowers, point out evidence of glaciation and name enough of the critters to take Scout troops on nature hikes around Scout Lake.

During our last family campout at Mirror Lake, we got a list of plants to start on from one of the volunteers. She seemed to know both the common and scientific name of everything growing in the Uinta Mountains and patiently took us through the natural garden, giving us tips on how to remember what we were seeing. When she isn't teaching campers as a volunteer, Jo Stohland works at LDS Hospital.Maybe an interest like this can be traced back to elementary school. We put paper over the maple leaves and made a copies by shading the paper with the side of a crayon. The teacher let us all put the whirley winged maple seeds on the ends our noses. It's the one tree I can remember along with the horse chestnut. The fall chestnuts would get carried home from a tree by the school lunch bucketful, one load each day. English school kids call the chestnuts conkers. They make a hole in the middle of each chestnut an run a foot-length of string through it. The game is to take turns hitting each other's conker. One student lets her conker dangle from the string and others will try to break it by hitting it with their stringed conkers. The toughest conker wins. The game never seemed to catch on in the United States.

Maybe the interest in trees and flowers came from days of walking across the University of Utah campus and noticing that the trees are labeled. The campus is designated as the state arboretum, and there has been considerable effort to cultivate many species and to carefully label them. I noticed once a hand-lettered card stuck to a light pole on campus. In keeping with the spirit of tagged trees, the card read "aluminus industrialis, native to Pittsburgh." It's another one that I can remember.

I can identify one other tree, the ponderosa. Each year when we cut our Christmas tree, we are reminded that the ponderosa is not indigenous to the area and therefore can't be cut. A $299 fine for cutting the wrong tree is enough motivation to learn to recognize a ponderosa.

The list of wildflowers from the Mirror Lake area is long. There are 99 flowers on the list and each has a very complicated sounding scientific name as well as a common name. Some are easy to remember. The elephant head does have a blossom that looks like an elephant head, but how could one ever remember that it is really Pedicularis groenlandica from the Scrophulariaceae family?

The secret of remembering is in the family. Although there are 99 plants on the list, they are all in about 15 families; and like most families there are some common characteristics that all the members have. Learning 15 is easier than learning 99, especially when there is a family resemblance.

Another way to make learning easier is to organize the study. I think I could probably learn the 99 if I tried to do it a family at a time instead of walking along the lake and learning at random. Our elephant head is in a family of about 11 members in the Mirror Lake area. It includes the Indian paint brush that most of us can recognize and penstemon, which has a name that should tip off some people. Pent means five, and is it five stems or stamen? It's stamen, and one of the five is sterile.

Probably the best way to learn the names is to get a plant key. This is a book that organizes for you. To key out a plant, you look up distinguishing characteristics until you eventually get to the name. It's like playing 20 questions with plant characteristics.

There is something to be learned about learning from this. Learning in a random, unorganized way is unproductive. Educators have terms that describe the organization of the curriculum. The terms are "scope" and "sequence." It isn't these terms that are important, however. The important thing for students to do is to organize their own learning. It may come in the right order in class or the information might come like a walk around Mirror Lake. Whatever way it comes, the student could do well to step back and see if there is a way to organize the information to see if learning can be more manageable. Perhaps there is some chronological order, or some part/whole organization. Maybe there is a vocabulary to master before other concepts can be learned. Perhaps the organization of the information is just intuitive.

Perhaps the best way to learn the names of the wildflowers at Mirror Lake is to move them all into some kind of order around the lake. Then again, maybe I missed the point a bit. Moving them in the head is easier. Part of what makes them beautiful is the sense of randomness that requires no order to be appreciated, but order to be learned.

Better to move my mind than to move the plants, except for aluminus industrialis, which is not indigenous and probably should be moved far away from the pristine Uinta Mountains, perhaps back to Pittsburgh.