You want to be impressed?

Talk to an 11-year-old about his success at the Nebraska State Fair identifying trees, weeds, plants and insects.

Timothy Duke, 11 and a sixth grader at Aquinas Middle School, was in his second year of competition at the 2017 Nebraska State Fair. He talked about the preparation process, competing in the preliminaries at Fremont, and then working to handle the pressure against dozens of other well prepared competitors.

“This year was a better year for me,” Timothy said. “I practiced trees a lot more.”

He ended up just a few bonus points behind his brother Jonathan, 14, in tree identification.

Timothy and Jonathan tied for the top score in the 40 specimen contest with the tie broken by tie-breaker questions. This was only the second time for this contest that members of the same family had tied for the top score, with the previous incidence of this occurring in 1965 with Steven and David Paschold from Lancaster County.

“Practice” includes going on walks and also studying tests that are on flash drives. For the older folks, that’s a device you plug into a computer that can hold vast amounts of information.

Then there’s working with Michael Rethwisch, UNL Extension Educator. He offers his expertise in plants and insects to the public, and he enjoys helping young people get into science.

“Sometimes Michael will test us,” Timothy said. “We’ll go to his office and he’ll show us specimens and we have to identify them. Sometimes he’ll give us one or two at a time and sometimes 20 at a time.”

A tree identifier has to learn all the tricks. Do the leaves have uneven bottoms, have opposite or alternate leaf arrangements. The judges put together specimens that are similar “so they can trick you,” Timothy said.

For example the leaves of the sugar maple and Norway maple are similar.

For some trees like ash, “The seed pods look the same, how they are grouped. The leaves can too,” Timothy said.

How did the Duke brothers get started in this?

“I think my mom found out about it and she wanted us to try it. We thought it was nice so we kept doing it,” he said.

So far, Jonathan isn’t bragging too much about edging Timothy at tree identification.

“He does a little bit,” Timothy said.

The Dukes parents are Rachel and Leslie of David City.

Rachel said that the boys’ mastery of plants has been a pleasant surprise.

“I thought they would complain about it, but they don’t complain,” she said. “They learn so much going to work with Michael.”

She said she didn’t know the exact formula that motivates young people to enjoy learning.

“(Michael) knows his stuff. He presents it in the right way. They seem to enjoy it,” she said.


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