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
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.
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
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
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,"
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
“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
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
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
Events section of this e-newsletter for the date, time and