The winter-spring shoulder season, or vernal window, is a key period for ecosystem carbon, water, and energy cycling. Sometimes referred to as mud season, in temperate forests, this transitional season opens with the melting of snowpack in seasonally snow-covered forests and closes when the canopy fills out. Sunlight pours onto the forest floor, soils thaw and warm, and there is an uptick in soil respiration. Scientists hypothesize that this window of ecological opportunity will lengthen in the future; these changes could have implications across all levels of the ecosystem, including the availability of food and water in human systems. Yet, there remains a dearth of observations that track both winter and spring indicators at the same location. Here, we present an inquiry-based, low-cost approach for elementary to high school classrooms to track environmental changes in the winter-spring shoulder season. Engagement in hypothesis generation and the use of claim, evidence, and reasoning practices are coupled with field measurement protocols, which provides teachers and students an authentic research experience that allows for a place-based understanding of local ecosystems and their connection to climate change.

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