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Ecology Service-Learning Students Brave Louisiana Summer to Conduct Research

Armed with a compass, colorful flagging, tree tags, and a plan, service-learning students in the Department of Biological Sciences are providing research to initiate a long-term ecological inventory of trees and plants in two public nature parks.  

Students in David R. Brown’s “Principles of Ecology Laboratory” braved the worst of south Louisiana’s summer elements – heat, humidity, briars, and insects – to pioneer a long-term field project that will address specific land management needs of BREC, the Recreation and Park Commission for East Baton Rouge Parish.

“To my knowledge, this is the first service-learning class where students have developed a long-term monitoring project to study the patterns of plant community succession in a restored area,” Brown said. “I think it’s unique in that it follows a research-based model and students were heavily involved in the planning and implementation. Future students in ecology labs will continue the study.”

Brown’s students will focus on two BREC parks – The Blackwater Conservation Area and Comite River Park, neighboring areas near the Comite River north of Baton Rouge. Blackwater, once an abandoned dirt mine, has been restored to become BREC’s newest nature park. The 63-acre area includes two large fishing lakes and 7,000 new trees representing native species such as bald cypress, tupelo gum, cottonwood, and river birch. Comite River Park is an undeveloped area that is used primarily by mountain bikers who enjoy nearly five miles of natural trails.

Using Applied Research for the Common Good

The concept of using classroom research to benefit the community became appealing to Brown during traditional field trips to a nearby BREC nature center.

“I started seeing problems in the environment, such as invasive species,” Brown said.

Invasive species are not native to the area, he explained. While they may have been introduced for good reasons, the populations grew at such a rapid rate as to negatively affect natural species.

“A lot of biologists consider invasive species in the world in terms of conserving natural habitats and biodiversity,” Brown said.

He looked for ways that his students could contribute to the study of the ecological succession – the changes in the composition or structure of an ecological community.

“It occurred to me that we could have a community component that allowed it to be applied in nature that would be more memorable and meaningful to the students,” Brown said.

As a result, Brown became one of eight 2007 Service-Learning Faculty Scholars who received a $2,000 stipend to design and implement an innovative service-learning course that addressed an identified community need.

Braving the South Louisiana Elements

In meetings on campus, students formed three teams to develop hypotheses to explain the ecological patterns and testable predictions of their hypotheses. Groups then brainstormed to determine the best study design, including plot size, location of plots, and methods of tagging and recording tree and plant species for observation by students in future semesters.

At Blackwater, students measured along a primary hiking trail so that 10x10-meter plots were uniformly distributed. They then used a random number sheet to select a distance from the trail that did not overlap the trail.  At that spot, students threw a bright pink roll of flagging tape high into the air. Where it landed became the center of the plot.

Working through waist-high ground cover, ant hills, and briars, each group marked the center and corners of their plot, tagged and recorded the trees, and estimated ground cover percentages. Because Blackwater is such a young park, future students will be able to monitor tree growth. With a hand-held instrument called a densiometer, students will record the emerging canopy cover as the park matures.

A Natural “Gold Mine” for Study

“Blackwater is a gold mine right now because the site was completely flat,” said Claire Coco, BREC natural resources manager. “It’s just a wonderful base for interpreting. No other site in East Baton Rouge Parish has been basically rebuilt from the soil up. We haven’t begun to interpret that site at all.”

“A lot of people are very disturbed about that site because when they visit it, they see a weedy, briar-covered site,” she added. “What they don’t understand is that they are seeing the first plant communities that are coming in. The trees are growing. It doesn’t look like a forest; it looks like something that has been forgotten.”

LSU students are providing a service that Coco said is critical for future management of Blackwater.

“In later semesters,” Brown said, “we will re-sample at the study sites we initiate this semester. Thus, we are beginning a long-term database that BREC will use to monitor its natural resources, plan management activities, and develop interpretive materials.”

Creativity in Scientific Design That Addresses Community Needs

“Innovative techniques often allow researchers to address difficult unanswered problems,” Brown added. “There’s quite a bit of creativity in the scientific process. Scientists work with existing knowledge and observations to develop new questions and explanations of the patterns in nature, so it’s a creative process.

“For instance, in forest ecology there are numerous ways to design a field study. The creativity comes in figuring out the most efficient approach in terms of logistical constraints such as time and money that simultaneously addresses all of the study questions by collecting all of the relevant data as precisely as possible.”

Because of their service-learning field experience, Brown expects at least one-fourth of his students to ask about additional field research opportunities.

“As with most new experiences, students are tentative at first, but by the end of the semester they’ll be an enthusiastic bunch,” Brown said.

“It’s rewarding for students to contribute to a project by working hard in hot, brambly conditions because they appreciate that they’re doing real and valuable research that benefits the local parks and the people who use them.

Roxanne Dill | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Fall 2007

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