Wednesday, August 6, 2008

PS 47-144: All hands in the field: Combining undergraduate education with long-term ecological monitoring and data collection

Cynthia E. Dott, Fort Lewis College


Long-term data sets are critical in aiding our understanding of ecosystem dynamics, and are essential in allowing us to make predictions about the future potential for and direction of change in natural systems.  Unfortunately, obtaining long-term data sets is often difficult, and funding for monitoring over the long haul difficult to obtain.  A parallel issue in ecology is the problem of how to increase the exposure of undergraduate students to active ecological research.   At Fort Lewis College - a state-funded school dedicated to undergraduate liberal arts education - our Field Ecology course represents one attempt to unite these two causes under one roof, while taking advantage of our ecologically diverse setting in southwestern Colorado. 

The Field Ecology course was initiated in about 1980 by Dr. Preston Somers (now retired), and he established several long-term monitoring projects in and around the San Juan Mountains in order to help students learn field methods and see what it’s like to work as a field biologist.  My colleague and I took over the course in 2004.  Recognizing the potential value of nearly 30 years’ worth of data that students in the course had compiled, I established two major goals for the course:

o        student learning goals related to using and applying field techniques and ecological concepts

o        long-term research goals centered on expanding existing data sets in order to monitor ecosystem change, and contribute to land management decisions


Two portions of the course have been especially fruitful in documenting ecological dynamics in riparian and aquatic ecosystems over the last 20 to 30 years.  In the first, we have been able to show a system (ecologic/geomorphic) response to a large disturbance event (2002 Missionary Ridge Fire).  In the second study, we document the impacts of dams and exotic species on riparian vegetation and aquatic ecosystems along the Dolores River below McPhee Dam in Western Colorado.  Currently we are participating in an expanded long-term monitoring and restoration project with a citizens’ stakeholder group.  This course can serve as a model for successfully accomplishing both long term ecological monitoring and educational engagement goals.  Graduates indicate that the course has been extremely successful in preparing them as professional bioscientists.   The excitement students feel in seeing their work in the context of, and building on, a long term ecological data set is truly contagious!