It's a daunting task, and one faced by multiple generations of elementary and high school science students. But Springfield area organizations have pitched in for more than a decade to help students with the assignments and connect families to often-overlooked nature in Springfield.
Denise took advantage of a recent leaf identification hike hosted by the Springfield Park District. The Springfield High School senior said she couldn't have found all the leaves on her own.
"Now when I'm walking in my neighborhood, I look at leaves different than I used to," said Denise, who also had a leaf collection project in middle school.
More than 50 elementary and high school students, and parents, pulled their hoods up and put gloves on for a brisk walk at Washington Park Botanical Garden on Sept. 22. The week before, a group of more than 70 people participated in the park district's first hike of the season.
Some science and botany teachers require students find 50 leaves. Other teachers require fewer, but more obscure species to identify.
Students collected their leaves, marked them, and parents or classmates held bags or binders to store the samples.
Alexa Bryan Potts led the students on the botanical garden's two walks. She described the area as a "living museum."
"I think it's a great thing to have students outdoors and teach them the appreciation of nature," said Bryan Potts, the garden's events and program coordinator. "I just think it's a valuable thing to have kids appreciate the surroundings and learn a little bit more about nature and appreciate it rather than being inside, stuck on a PlayStation 3.
"As a park district, we're always striving to continue education and further the community and appreciate what we have."
The chilly weather didn't slow down participants. Bryan Potts told the students which leaves produce poisonous berries, which have dangerous thorns and which individual leaves are composed of multiple leaflets - an important fact that many parents said would've eluded them.
She provided other details, such as identifying Illinois' state tree (the white oak), and whether a species is native to the area, or from Europe or Asia. She also pointed out trees that likely won't survive the drought. The extreme dryness proved particularly devastating for redwoods, she said.
Seven-year-old Joshua Powell eagerly jumped to the front of the crowd to hear about the leaves. Proudly showing off his soccer shirt and still in his cleats, he told Bryan Potts about the trees in his own yard - identifying them by name. Joshua and his family enjoy looking at leaves while walking. The Powells, of Springfield, bring a book to identify the types they see.
Joshua is home-schooled, and his parents look for education activities that match his interests.
"This makes it very easy," said his mom, Laura Powell, as she chased after him. "It's a good supplement to our science curriculum and he loves leaf collecting. So when we find something that fits a passion of his, we try to keep going with it."
Kassie Campbell, 16, found herself less than thrilled. The Springfield High junior needed 50 leaves for her botany project, and while she preferred that to a bug collection another course required, the fall morning temperature got the better of her.
Still, she appreciated having the park district's assistance. She said she wasn't sure how she'd finish the project without help.
Kelvin Grimble accompanied his 12-year-old daughter, Jayla, on the Sept. 22 walk. A seventh-grader at Chatham's Glenwood Middle School, Jayla asked her dad not to embarrass her.
Grimble appreciated a project that got his daughter outside - and helped make the task of collecting and identifying the leaves easier.
"When we were kids we used to be outside all the time," he said. "It gets them outside doing something else with nature, getting away from the video games and hopefully lets them appreciate nature. We get to spend some time with our kids and, you know, if the park district didn't do this we wouldn't know what leaves to pull."
Crispin Fornoff, 15, spends plenty of time outside and relished an assignment that allowed him a break from books and essays.
"It's good exercise and it's just a lot more fun than sitting at home and writing stuff down on paper," said the Springfield High sophomore, who attended with his mom, Jane Fornoff.
Doug Brady took the opportunity to enjoy a Saturday morning with his three boys. His wife, Jennifer, home schools the oldest two and gave the children - and their dad - a science assignment. Four-year-old Truman helped his brothers, Hudson, 8, and Jack, 10, gather the leaves they needed.
"I think it's great. It gets them out," Doug Brady said. "It's great that the park district puts on things like this so that the kids can come out, be out here, learn about this stuff. I don't know about this stuff so I think it's great."
Taking advantage of nature.
Lincoln Memorial Garden also hosts leaf identification hikes each fall (see accompanying information on the final two scheduled hikes). Jim Matheis is executive director of the park, and he said the leaf hikes introduce people to the natural world.
"You know, you start giving a little bit of knowledge and once people acquire that knowledge, they start to want to learn more, and then once they start to learn more, they start to feel a little bit of a sense of ownership or protection. So the more they learn, the more they're involved, the more they feel like, you know, we've got to conserve and protect things," Matheis said.
It's important for community organizations to support families with educational resources, he said.
"Anytime you get people in the out-of-doors, it's important. I mean, people aren't as connected to the natural (world) as they used to be Leaf collecting, that's just one way of doing it, I suppose," Matheis added.
Rochester's Tony Martin took his daughter, Jenna, on a Lincoln Memorial walk on Sept. 23, with more than 40 other participants. Jenna, 15, gathered leaves for a Rochester High School sophomore year science project.
"I think everybody should know their leaves," Tony Martin said. "We were hoping to get them all at one place today. And, this is a great place. It's close to home."
Martin works with trees through his landscaping job. The leaf walks simultaneously educate and provide support for Lincoln Memorial Garden, he said.
"It not only brings just a little bit of revenue, maybe a little bit of interest to these parks. People who don't usually go to them, but also it helps with the leaf project," he said.
Alison and Kiersten Anderson, 14, marked the Sept. 23 trip on their calendar weeks ahead of time. It's "mother-daughter time at it's finest," said Alison Anderson, of Springfield.
Anderson is a third grade teacher at Ball Elementary School in Chatham and jumped at the chance to help her daughter complete a leaf and bug collection.
"This is like the outdoor classroom," she said.
Anderson is teaching her third-graders about ecosystems, and Kiersten is going to share her finalized project with the class.
A Lutheran High School freshman, Kiersten has four siblings. The youngest are 1-year-old twins, Ethan and Eli.
"We will be back," Alison Anderson said. "You know all this will still be around in 13 years when I have to do this again."
The events are open to all interested people - not just students.
"I'm beyond school," said Springfield's William Sturm, a retired dentist who participated because he loves trees. "You simply learn what types of trees there are and you learn a few characteristics about the trees. It's a lot of information. That way when I go around Washington Park, or something, and see trees, I learn a little bit more information to try to identify them."
Sturm has his own farm with several hundred trees. He'd never participated in a planned leaf hike and marveled at the opportunities provided by Lincoln Memorial Garden and the park district.
"They're gems. They really are," he said. "It's great to be outside and I think it gives (students) a better understanding of the nature of the tree, looking at the bark, the characteristics of the trees. It expands their knowledge of trees."
When Sturm really started delving into dendrology (the study of trees and shrubs), he realized he had more to discover.
"I learned that I needed to learn more," he said.