Our Young Scientists Research Experience is one of our favorite programs of the year!
Middle and high school students spend a week with us doing their own independent research projects. They come up with a research question, collect data to answer their questions, and share their findings during a presentation to friends and family.

We’re incredibly proud of the work these students did, and we’re excited to share their results with you!

If you’d like to sign up for next year’s Young Scientist Research Experience, you can subscribe to our email newsletter to be notified when registration opens.

Here’s a quick summary of all their hard work:
Lane found that spittlebug larvae prefer to inhabit goldenrod, blackberry, and crownbeard.
Logan found that Field Sparrows are more abundant in the fields we burn than in the fields we mow.
Grant found that bigger Redbuds have more pods.
Elyssa found that more aromatic Spicebush trees actually have more insects on them.
Liam and Loreli worked together to find that the habitat preferences of dragonflies and damselflies are almost opposite those of salamander larvae.
Sarah found that insects prefer to eat lighter-colored leaves and that insect damage doesn’t appear to affect leaf color.
We want to offer special thanks to Maggie Grady! Maggie was a student in this program for the last two years. She returned this summer as a research intern but also kindly agreed to help this week as a mentor. The students appreciated having a previous participant around for guidance and we loved having Maggie’s help for the week.

The Clifton Institute was featured in this piece by Bob Hurley for Rappahannock News. Check it out!



Clifton was featured in the April edition of Middleburg Life! Check out the article below (starts on page 30)

The Clifton Institute’s own Caylen Wolfer was recently published in the VOS newsletter! Click on the link to read the full article:


VSO Newsletter Spring 2023 Vol 69 No 2-pages-1-3

The Clifton Institute was featured in the March/April 2023 issue of Virginia Wildlife Magazine! Click the link below to read the article.

March_April_2023Clifton article


Link to the Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/713710063547160/

Most of us living in Northern Virginia naturally break down our region into sections based on geographic, ecological and cultural similarities. The Blue Ridge Mountains form an undulating wall on our western horizon, clearly visible for many miles as a rugged line of forested mountains. The coastal plain encompasses the lowlands surrounding the Chesapeake on eastward, across the Delmarva Peninsula to the Atlantic, and everything in between we call the Piedmont.

From a strictly geographic point of view, everything below the higher peaks of the Blue Ridge all the way to the coastal plain could be considered the Piedmont, which is defined as a gentle slope leading to the foot of a mountain range. But the Piedmont of Northern Virginia is a diverse landscape that can be a little hard to pin down under one umbrella.

The Piedmont is important. A line of big cities marks its eastern edge. Why? This is where ancient crystalline bedrock first emerges from under the young, low-lying sediments of the coastal plain. Wide, tidal waters easily navigable by cargo ships encounter constricted, fast-flowing streams winding between the rocky hills. Mills requiring high gradient waters for power could load their products right onto big ships and send them across the world.

From an ecological point of view, the piedmont is a land of relatively high biodiversity. A jumble of different bedrock types, spread across a landscape of rolling hills and meandering valleys leads to diverse soils. The Piedmont’s position just below and east of the mountains makes for a milder climate with somewhat higher rainfall than areas just to the west of the Blue Ridge.

When trying to define the Piedmont geologically, things get much murkier. In fact, one could easily make the argument that everything west of a line from Culpeper to Warrenton to Leesburg is actually part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. How is that?

The “Piedmont” in these parts is actually divided into three very distinct regions geologically. To understand that better, let’s look at things in a cross section. Since the whole region is oriented from southwest to northeast, we will start in the southeast and head northwest.

As you travel 17 north from Fredericksburg, you transition from the young, undeformed sediments of the coastal plain to massively deformed crystalline rocks just west of I-95. This is a land of choppy hills, and narrow valleys. The elevation generally runs from 200’ to 400’ above sea level. The rocks under these hills are from the early Paleozoic era, when there was little life on land and the dinosaurs were still 300,000,000 years in the future.

The current hills are the eroded nubs of huge mountains from that time. Many of the rocks came from far away and were smashed onto the edge of the continent as the seafloor was subducted underneath, like how a fallen log will collect rafts of foam from the surface of a river as the water moves underneath. In Northern Virginia, this band of low, rolling hills is part of the Inner Piedmont Province. There is an Outer Piedmont farther south and east in Virginia, but it disappears under the sediments of the Chesapeake to the north.

The rolling hills of the Outer Piedmont with the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond. Between lie the lowlands of the Culpeper Basin. To me this is the most characteristic landscape of the Piedmont.

Just past the community of Morrisville, the landscape changes abruptly. The mostly wooded hills are gone and a flatter landscape of broad agricultural fields opens up. This is the Culpeper Basin. A relatively new addition to the geologic landscape of Virginia. By new, I mean there were dinosaurs walking around, and big trees, but no Atlantic Ocean yet, when this basin came into existence.

The basin is the result of a stretching force on the earth’s crust, opposite the force that pushed the rocks of the Outer Piedmont onto the eastern edge of the continent. The Piedmont rocks started to break free and slide away from the Blue Ridge Mountains during the Triassic period some 230,000,000 years ago. The gap in between was filled with sediments to form a flat basin where lava occasionally flowed across the land. The area would have initially looked like a portion of today’s Great Basin in Nevada and Utah. No major tectonic events have occurred since then and the landscape you see today is basically the work of 200,000,000 years of weathering and erosion sculpting this once dramatic rift basin.

Death Valley is an extensional rift basin in Southern California. The topography is likely similar to what the Culpeper Basin looked like in the Triassic and Jurassic periods with the Blue Ridge on one side and the Inner Piedmont on the other.

Just before you reach Warrenton, the landscape changes again. Hills once again dominate the scene. These hills are somewhat broader and taller than those of the Inner Piedmont. They are the remains of lava flows that occurred more than 530,000,000 years ago. The lava was metamorphosed into the greenstone of the Catoctin Formation. This rock is very resistant to erosion and stands high in ranges like Pignut Mountain, where The Clifton Institute is located, and the Watery Mountains just to the west. If you were to stand on the summit of these hills and look northwest, Catoctin Greenstone would also form the higher ridges on the western horizon. In fact, it used to cover everything in between but has been removed by weathering like a giant ice cream scoop, to reveal even older rocks underneath.

Standing on the Catoctin Greenstone of Wildcat Mountain looking west. Catoctin Greenstone also sits atop the high ridges of Mt. Marshal on the horizon. The whole scene is part of the Blue Ridge Anticlinorium.

The rocks under these mountains originated along the eastern edge of North America before the Inner and Outer Piedmont terranes came crashing in and long before the rifting of the Culpeper Basin. The whole slab of rock between Warrenton and Luray was shoved westward some 60 miles from its original position when Europe and Africa collided with North America, detaching it from its roots deeper in the crust and forming what is called a thrust sheet. The whole unit is called the Blue Ridge Anticlinorium or just the Blue Ridge Province.

The 3 geologic divisions show up well on satellite imagery. The mostly forested hills of the Inner Piedmont (outlined in purple) are dark green. The lighter swath of farmland and urban development to the west is the Culpeper Basin (outlined in orange), dark areas in the basin are forests covering lava flows where the soil is too rocky for farming. The Blue Ridge Anticlinorium is a mosaic of forested hills and fields bounded on the west by the higher mountains of Shenandoah National Park (outlined in blue.)

(If you’re not familiar with the Native Seed Pilot Project, check out this news release.)

Native Seed Project Coordinator Isaac Matlock joined our staff in October and immediately got to work collecting seeds with the help of partner organizations and several volunteers. We caught up with Isaac to ask him how the collection season went.

Native Seed Project Coordinator Isaac Matlock standing in front of a portion of the seeds collected this season.

Q: What were your goals for this fall?
IM: Our primary goal was to collect as much seed as possible from the three ecoregions of Virginia (Mountains, Piedmont, Coastal Plain). Our target species for this project are common plants found throughout the state, but in order to ensure we were collecting plants considered Virginia ecotypes we needed to confirm the sites we were visiting had no prior history of seeding or planting that would have come from outside sources.

Another goal this season was to record new sites that could be potential collection areas for future years. By growing our inventory of potential collection sites, we’ll have the ability to collect a larger quantity of seed overall but also reduce our dependence on any given population. Collecting too much seed from one area can be detrimental to the given species and their associated ecosystem. Having as little as possible impact on these places is a vital part of this project.

Q: What is one challenge you faced?
IM: One of the most significant challenges so far in this project has been locating species with populations large enough to sustainably collect seed from. There are many reasons for this challenge, but habitat destruction has the most significant impact. Our goal is to bring these native plants to the seed market in order to make them more widely available in Virginia and introduce a lucrative crop for farmers around the state, but also to ensure the survival of these species for their own sake and for the animals that depend on them. Continued spread of urban development makes things difficult for our state’s biodiversity and collecting these species now will hopefully assist in maintaining healthy populations or, in some cases, reintroducing them to areas that they may have been extirpated.

Q: What went well?
IM: Despite the shortened collection season [because Isaac started in October] and the ongoing search for new collection sites, we were able to collect a considerable amount of seed this year. We managed to collect seeds for sixteen of our eighteen target species.

Additionally, the majority of the seed collected this season came from private land with owners kind enough to let us do so. Many of these landowners were acquainted with the native plants on their land and were excited to contribute to their conservation, while others were excited to learn new things about their property. A project like this provides a great example of the value native plants bring. I believe this can provide people with an elevated appreciation for the natural world outside their front door and aid in long-term conservation of these species.

Q: What’s next?
IM: As we move into winter, we have two priorities for the coming year. With the assistance of farmer advocate organizations, we are working to recruit farmers in the northern Piedmont region that would be interested in incorporating native plants into their current agricultural system. We also have to prepare for plug production in the spring while the seeds are being processed by our partner Ernst Conservation Seeds in Pennsylvania. Clifton will be building a new greenhouse that will be able to produce roughly 18,000 plugs. Once the plugs are ready, we will provide them to farmers at no cost to plant for future seed collection.



Stay tuned for news about our new greenhouse in the next couple of months! And if you are a farmer who would like to learn more about the project please email Isaac at imatlock@cliftoninstitute.org

In September of 2022, Education Associate Bridget Bradshaw was standing in the experimental grassland having a conversation with one fifth-grade student about bison husbandry while pulling Swamp Agrimony seeds out of another student’s hair. Students were valiantly thrashing away at the tall vegetation on either side of the trail, diving headfirst into their sweep nets to push the contents into a Ziploc bag. They hoped to find one of the families of Orthoptera they’d spent the last hour learning to identify. Bridget looked at one student’s data sheet on the ground. There was a drawing of an ant and something that was maybe a spider. Next to that, a few big zeros, despite the many grasshoppers hopping just out of reach of the nets.

Bridget gently ended the bison conversation and yelled “last sweep and then we head back!” The students let out mixed cries of relief and disappointment. On the hike back to the peach house, the group wondered: Why didn’t we catch any grasshoppers? Bridget was dreading analyzing the data, worried that the kids would feel like they had failed. This was the first time Bridget had run this field trip, which had been redesigned to let students actively participate in ongoing research at Clifton. But there are very few manuals for designing research methods for large groups of students that range in age from kindergarten to 12th grade and may have little to no field experience, and even Bridget, an experienced educator, wasn’t quite sure what to expect. So why redesign the field trips at all?

Bridget Bradshaw addresses a group of students in the experimental fields.

Dr. Bruce Alberts, a prominent biochemist and recipient of the 2014 National Medal of Science, published a letter in January, 2022, titled “Why Science Education is More Important than Most Scientists Think.” He writes, “providing a quality education for a nation’s youth is perhaps the most important task that confronts a society, but to do it well is an enormously complex task.”

One of the goals outlined in his letter is to make the logic of science—observation, question, hypothesis, evidence collection, analysis, critical discussion, and sharing of results—so familiar to people that it is used in all parts of life in order to make smart decisions. Many studies have found that actively participating in science coupled with interactions with scientists lead to feelings of increased competency and positive feelings towards science in all ages of people (Bonney et al. 2009). A research field station like the Clifton Institute is an ideal venue to provide authentic science experiences to local communities because 78% of people in the U.S. live within 60 miles of a field station (Struminger et al. 2018). And this is why, in the spring of 2022, Bridget, Co-Director Eleanor Harris and Education Fellow Jacob Ewert sat down to re-write Clifton’s field trip curriculum.

The goal was to design field trips that were not only adjusted to reinforce the state standards expected for each grade level, but to engage each of our 1000-plus annual K-12 students in real science, help them use their data to make real land management suggestions, and then share the trials and errors with other field stations looking to improve their science outreach. Which brings Bridget back to the grassland, covered in seeds, zeros in hand, kids in tow.

Students on this field trip were seeking an answer to the question: “does fire affect the abundance of orthopterans in our experimental grassland?” We want to know because American Kestrels, the tiny falcons whose numbers are declining across the U.S., eat a lot of grasshoppers and other large insects, and nobody has studied the possible effects of different management strategies on prey populations.

The students had split into three groups to survey. Individually they only found a tiny handful of grasshoppers, but they concluded that there were more orthopterans on the mowed side. They wondered about what could explain their findings. Did grasshoppers really only eat grass and there were more grasses on the mowed side? Did the burned side have more blackberry bushes that caught the nets and let the grasshoppers escape capture?

Finally, the three small groups compared data. All three graphs showed the same pattern: higher numbers of orthopterans in the mowed section. The students acknowledged that, given they were only surveying for 40 minutes, this might not be an immutable truth, but still—how amazingly consistent given the new method and a field crew that had been trained just an hour prior!

There’s untapped power in bringing students to a research field station and enlisting them as the field crew for the day. They learn that each tidbit of information gained about the world is paid for in sweat and sometimes blood (the grassland is a thorny place), and they learn that understanding how those “facts” came to be is important in deciding how much weight to place on them. Our hope is that each year going forward, classes will return to watch the landscape change and see the power of compounding data to find patterns in plant communities, vernal pools, wintering waterfowl, the onset of spring, and, of course, grasshoppers because most meaningful discoveries—and certainly the kinds that take decades or centuries to see—are the work of many.

Alberts B. 2022. Why Science Education is More Important than Most Scientists Think. FEBS Letters 596: 149–159.

Bonney R, Ballard H, Jordan R, McCallie E, Phillips T, Shirk J, Wilderman CC. 2009. Public Participation in Scientific Research: Defining the Field and Assessing Its Potential for Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report. Online Submission.

Stuminger R, Zarestky J, Short R, Lawing AM. 2018. A Framework for Informal STEM Education Outreach at Field Stations. BioScience 68: 969-978.

WARRENTON, VA (Sept. 23, 2022) — The Clifton Institute is pleased to announce it has received a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to fund a new program called The Virginia Native Seed Pilot Project. This project will launch the native seed industry in Virginia, which will make it possible to plant ecologically appropriate wildflower meadows.

There is substantial demand for seeds of native wildflowers and grasses for pollinator friendly solar installations, meadow plantings, and roadside revegetation in Virginia. But seeds of several species of plants that are common in native grasslands in the state, and beneficial for pollinators, are unavailable from seed companies. Furthermore, seeds of most species that are available have out-of-state genetics, which limits their utility to restore plant communities and provide pollinator habitat. These plants often bloom at the wrong time for our local insects or they’re too tall or too short.

“Native plants, especially native plants with local genetics, are crucial for supporting native insects, birds, and other wildlife,” says Clifton Institute Executive Director Bert Harris. “Not being able to buy the seeds of plant species native to Virginia, let alone from Virginian populations, is a critical obstacle to creating pollinator habitat statewide.”


Co-Director Bert Harris collects seeds.

The grant will fund a new Native Seed Coordinator position at The Clifton Institute. The Native Seed Coordinator with work with partners and volunteers to collect seeds of 15 species of wildflowers and grasses across the state. A new greenhouse at the Clifton Institute will also be partly funded by the grant and seedlings will be grown to then be transplanted in farmers’ fields. Virginia State University and Clifton Institute staff will work to establish a network of local producers who can serve as a commercial source of native seeds. In particular, the project will focus on equipping underserved farmers with the tools and skills they need to grow and sell this new high value crop. Other key partners in the project are the Virginia Dept. of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Dept. of Wildlife Resources, the Nature Conservancy, Ernst Conservation Seeds, and the Capital Region Land Conservancy.