Not Your Mother’s Leaf Collection

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hand holding colorful fall leaves

While my daughter, Katie, and I were going to work today we couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the trees in Lee County were, decked out in their fall colors. We determined it is time for a photography walk in the woods. In the fall in North Carolina temperatures are perfectly mild inviting us outdoors for adventure. Today I encourage you to use this season for some experiential learning the 4-H way. The environment in which we live holds a plethora of opportunities to engage in learning in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math. Let us begin with photosynthesis.

The largest source of energy we use comes from the sun. You might ask this great question, “What about oil?” Oil is a fossil fuel and the majority of the energy we use today comes from fossil fuels. What are fossil fuels? They are the decayed remains of plants and algae that have been under extreme heat and pressure for a very, very long time. Where do fossil fuels get their energy?

Plants and algae use a process called photosynthesis. Plants take in WATER through their roots and CARBON DIOXIDE through their leaves. Chlorophyll is what makes the leaves green and it is how the plant takes in ENERGY from the sun. Using pony beads for atoms and pipe cleaners to bind them, a young person can mimic the process of photosynthesis by assembling carbon dioxide and water molecules. First build six carbon dioxide molecules (CO2) giving each molecule 1 carbon atom, and 2 oxygen atoms, and then build six water molecules (H2O) giving each water molecule 2 hydrogen atoms, and 1 oxygen atom. Photosynthesis is the process where plants use the energy from the sun to break down the water and carbon dioxide molecules rearranging them into Oxygen and Glucose. Remember this formula, 6CO2 + 6H2O -> C6H12O6 + 6O2 from school? This simply means for every six Carbon dioxide molecules and six water molecules, a little energy from the sun, and some work by the plant it will make one glucose molecule (C6H12O6) and six oxygen molecules (O2). Your young scientist can now rearrange their twelve CO2 and H2O molecules into one glucose molecule and six oxygen molecules with no leftover pony beads. This is a nice illustration of the law of the conservation of mass, atoms cannot be created nor destroyed. Don’t forget to point out where the plants find carbon dioxide. The plant uses glucose for energy and releases oxygen into the air. I asked earlier where fossil fuels get their energy? From the sun using photosynthesis!

What do photosynthesis and chlorophyll have to do with fall and outside adventure? As days get shorter, rainfall decreases, and temperatures drop, broad leaves begin their preparations for winter. Photosynthesis stops when the trees seal off the connection between their leaves and stems. Since the leaves cannot get water (H2O) they will lose the green chlorophyll pigment and change colors. The first color you will see in a hardwood forest is yellow, followed by orange, and finally red. Red leaves contain the pigment anthocyanin, which is a strong antioxidant. Antioxidants are essential to both plant and human health. Orange leaves have a lot of beta-carotene pigment and yellow leaves have xanthophylls pigment. Test the pigment in your trees and try to predict what colors they will change by collecting green leaves, shredding them into tiny pieces, and placing them in a mason jar. Cover the leaves with rubbing alcohol, and insert a strip of a coffee filter into the jar. See what happens overnight. Try different versions of this experiment—for example, what happens if you do the experiment again with leaves that have already turned color? What happens if you use leaves from different tree species? 

After you have finished experimenting with fall leaves take some unique pictures or put together some unique collages. Press your leaves between wax paper in a heavy book for a few days. The soybean and corn fields look particularly picturesque right now. Then please share any digital versions of your photos and art with me so I can encourage others to do what you did.

My resources for this article were Project Learning Tree and a North Carolina 4-H curriculum called BioEnergy: Farm-Based Fuels. Project Learning Tree uses trees and forests as windows on the world to increase students’ understanding of the environment and actions they can take to conserve it. Since 1976, PLT has reached 138 million students and trained 765,000 educators to help students learn how to think, not what to think about complex environmental issues. PLT provides low to no-cost professional development and curriculum resources to educators. Both PLT and 4-H programs provide experiential, student-driven learning that results in positive outcomes for youth. For information about these programs contact Pam Kerley at

Pam is the 4-H Program Assistant for North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center. 4-H is a positive youth development program offering programs that suit a variety of backgrounds, interests, budgets, and schedules. From in-school to after-school, clubs to camps, 4-H’s programs are available in Lee County and we welcome children who want to have fun, learn, and grow. In North Carolina, 4-H is brought to you by the NC State Extension. N.C. Cooperative Extension’s experts and educators share university knowledge, information, and tools you can use every day to improve your life.