AKRON, Ohio — When Renata Fossen Brown checks on the progress of a patch of tulips at Cleveland Botanical Garden, schoolchildren across the Northern Hemisphere are watching.
Brown is a participant in Journey North's tulip test garden project, an online educational effort that lets kids track spring's arrival across the hemisphere and teaches them about seasonal changes, climate and geography.
The concept is simple: Volunteers scattered across the United States and a few countries in Europe and Asia plant the same type of tulip bulbs and then monitor and report on the plants' growth. Tulips were chosen because they're one of the few plants that can be grown just about everywhere in North America. The volunteers' dispatches are tracked on a map on the Journey North website, so children can watch the season's progression throughout the country and beyond.
Many of the gardens are at schools, but other institutions and individuals participate, too.
This is the first year Cleveland Botanical Garden has been part of the project. Brown, the garden's vice president of education, planted tulips last fall at its Hershey Children's Garden and at three urban farms tended by the teenage participants in its Green Corps program.
Staff members monitored the tulips' early progress, Brown said, because the children's garden was closed for the season until late March and the Green Corps program doesn't start till May.
Nevertheless, she's hoping to get the garden's young visitors engaged in the project. She might urge the children to compare the progress of bulbs planted one year to bulbs planted the next, she said, or perhaps involve the kids in tracking data over a long period of years as a way of seeing climate trends.
"This is real science. This is authentic," said Brown, the botanical garden's vice president of education. "This is engaging, and it's worthwhile."
The tulip watch is just one of the citizen science projects overseen by Journey North (www.learner.org/jnorth), a program that helps children study wildlife migration and seasonal change. It's operated by Annenberg Learner, a division of the Annenberg Foundation.
Journey North started in 1994, and the tulip test gardens were one of its first projects, said Mary Hosier, a Cleveland Heights, Ohio, resident and a writer for the program.
She said the tulip project reaches more than 1 million students annually. The number of gardens varies each year, but about 450 have been planted this year, she said.
Those gardens cover much of the United States, reaching as far south as Florida, Louisiana and Texas. There are even a few gardens in Germany, Russia, Denmark and England.
This year, participating gardeners planted Red Emperor tulips.
The gardeners are required to plant fresh bulbs each year as a way of controlling the tests, Hosier said. Otherwise, an older bulb might come up earlier than a new one.
Bulbs are planted in the fall in cooler areas and in January in warmer spots. Bulbs planted in warmer climates have to be chilled in a refrigerator for six weeks before they're planted to mimic the cold conditions needed to stimulate proper growth.
Participants report the dates when they plant their bulbs, when they spot the first growth emerging from the ground in spring and when the tulips are fully opened.
For each report, a pin is placed on an online map. The pins are color-coded so the map's visitors can see at a glance what's happening. By clicking on a pin, users can read specific information about that garden.
Hosier said the project helps students learn about climate and the effects of geologic features such as mountains and oceans, and it also develops skills such as map reading. She said good teachers can encourage their students to ask questions, such as why their garden is blooming while another nearby is not.
"It can be really fun, plus it's super hands-on," she said. "You know, you're out there digging in the dirt."