an e-newsletter for students and alumni of saint michael's biology department

Hands-On Experience
By Mark Tarnacki with contributions from Denise Martin

Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of the Saint Michael's College Magazine. Below is an excerpt (adapted by Denise Martin, biology instructor) about our new General Biology Lab program.

It was a bright sunny October afternoon, and the Saint Michael’s College biology professors Declan McCabe and Denise Martin marched down a sandy military road at Camp Johnson to find an excited patrol of their science students popping out from the trees at a staked-out opening.

In prior visits early this fall, half of the lab groups studying an ecologically unique controlled-burn wooded area of the National Guard base that divides Saint Michael’s main and North campuses had set transparent plastic tubular ground traps filled with Sierra-brand antifreeze to collect insects and other small invertebrates.

All in all it was a banner year for doing fall field work with pleasant air temperatures and little rain, although, sometimes what they found in their traps was unexpected, such as an errant salamander, and in one trap a frog that looked as if it barely could squeeze itself inside.  Most of the time, however, students found what they were seeking.

Cooperation among Saint Michael’s professors and military officials has made this a banner year for introductory biology students and their mentors too. With
McCabe and other faculty, Martin, the longtime chief lab supervisor for biology, revamped traditional introductory labs, turning them into practical hands-on encounters with nature, in nature. Students seem to love it.

Beginning fall 2006, the six General Biology sections were divided into two main groups, one that focused primarily on plant community structure and the other on questions pertaining to species diversity of invertebrate animals. Plant biologists Doug Green and Peter Hope led the first group while Denise Martin and Declan McCabe mentored the latter group.

Biology professors Valerie Banschbach (one of the project’s initiators and an ant expert), was deeply involved with the department's new lab approach while geography professor Richard Kujawa helped with mapping the study areas.

Working together on outdoor projects, students learn the cooperative skills that good science demands, Martin and McCabe said. More importantly, they seem to stay better focused and more interested in their work, though students still practice precise indoor lab skills too by observing and cataloging specimens once back at Cheray Science Hall, the professors said.

     Elizabeth Borys, ’10, works with pitfall traps
     at Camp Johnson.

“This is very nontraditional,” Martin said. “In the last 10 years, we’ve been moving away from canned labs toward open-ended ‘inquiry-based’ labs, but field experience was missing before. That’s the idea behind it. Students now are getting honest exposure to what field-based biology is like, both the positives and the negatives.”

As luck would have it, the Army has mandates at its bases for educational outreach and conservation, McCabe explained, so allowing Saint Michael’s students on the base to conduct experiments met a dual purpose for camp officials and served the College’s needs.

Camp Johnson tracts have special interest to biologists because they are part of the Champlain Forest, a rare type of habitat called a sand plain forest that evolved over an ancient former delta of the Winooski River. “It’s like a beach it’s so sandy, so we find pitch pines, oak, and heath; periodic fires are necessary to burn back the undergrowth and to release pitch pine seeds from their cones," Martin said.

But human development made those naturally essential forest fires unlikely.

“So they burned sections of the forest in the ’80s— the military working with state scientists and experts trying to find optimal ways of maintaining the environment,” Martin said, noting how it makes for interesting comparisons of the ecology in adjoining burned and unburned tracts.

McCabe said the department decided to move the ecology part of general biology from spring to fall in order to try some sort of outdoor labs early in a term. ”We wanted something that would have a real world application rather than biology for the sake of biology,” he said. Once Valerie Banschbach had the idea of studying conservation burn areas at Camp Johnson, the department secured permission.

“It’s been a nice intersection of different parts of the community just in terms of how they can learn lots of hooks into biology,” McCabe said. “It hits disturbance and succession, biological diversity, diversity indices, experimental design, replication—we can build all the components into this.”

The project also builds in “some very basic natural history” like identifying plants, insects and trees, he said. “It’s pretty unusual now in a biology course to get basic natural history because people have moved away from that, but we have people who know this stuff.”

During the first few weeks of labs students became familiar with the local forests, how to keep a field notebook, and basic sampling techniques. They were also required to read selected articles on biodiversity and the need for biomonitoring on both local and worldwide scales. Working in small groups, students pursued their own research questions.

Six class sections meant six trips a week to the site, with between 14 and 18 students per trip. The roving instructors kept fieldwork close to the camp’s roads and used walkie-talkies to maintain contact with the fanned-out subgroups. Each trip meant stopping for clearance at the camp’s security gate too.

While students were conducting field work, processing samples, and compiling data, they were also working on their formal communication skills. Brief oral reports were given throughout the semester so that fellow lab members would know what others were doing. In addition, students worked individually and in groups on writing up their research.

“The overarching project is to compare the areas and have students design their       Alex Miller, ’10, examines his pitfall catch.
own experiments,” Martin said. She knows
of no similar program at other schools, but
still perceived an urgent need based on her experiences with modern students.

“Their attention span is getting shorter and shorter. They’re coming in without basic observation skills,” Martin said. “They’re not used to seeing connections, but rather compartmentalizing ideas into discrete areas. Doing this program is making them slow down.”

The culmination of the semester’s work was shared at an evening poster session, which was very well attended by students as well as other members of Saint Michael’s community. Lab instructors selected the best project from each lab section and these posters were displayed in the hall for the remainder of the academic year. Projects included a comparison of invertebrate species diversity in burned versus unburned sections of Camp Johnson forest, invertebrate species diversity along a moisture gradient, and the effects of fire on shrub composition and on plant diversity.

“We’re trying to emphasize that science is collaboration, with a goal to eventually put their data online, which Doug Green is helping us with,” Martin said.

Brian Martyniak ’10, a bio-chemistry major, said his group would experiment to see if plant density affects insect diversity. Alex Canepa ’10, said her group was having problems with raccoons who are too curious about traps. “A few have gone missing,” she said, noting how her group members have encountered not just snakes, but “chipmunks, squirrels, turkeys, deer… and people.”

The fall 2007 lab program is currently in its second year. We look forward to seeing what discoveries this semester’s work will bring. Please attend the poster session and reception at the end of the semester to learn about our students’ work.  See the Upcoming Events section of this e-newsletter for the date, time and location.

Return to main page