When Luther received a 10-acre land donation a couple of years ago, professor of biology Beth Lynch was puzzled. The Weigle-Roslien woodland contained an old sugar maple forest, which Lynch says is rare for Iowa. “I’m a forest ecologist, and this particular woodland represents a real enigma. In this area, if you find sugar maples and basswoods and other fire-sensitive species, they’re going to be on a steep north-facing slope, where it’s moist and protected from fire, and this one is on a flat upland. I was immediately attracted to it because it’s so strange.”
Lynch saw a great opportunity to use this unusual, never-researched land to teach her ecology students how to set up permanent research plots and how to design and carry out original, independent small-group research projects. The students spent the first few weeks of their fall ecology course staking out the plots, then conducting thorough surveys of the trees and understory within the plots. Lynch plans to contribute this data to the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN), a collaborative project between several colleges that generates and shares publishable data.
Says senior Matthew Peterson, “I found it interesting to be a part of setting up permanent plots. I’ve never done that before, and I’ll look back on that and think it’s cool to have initiated a project.” But it’s clear that the independent small-group research is what really excited the double biology/environmental science major, who studied carbon storage in the soils of different areas of the woodland.
“I wanted to incorporate what I’ve learned to appreciate during my time at Luther,” Peterson says. “When you’re able to develop your own project, I think it really helps to maintain motivation—we were as interested in the results as Dr. Lynch was.”
While Peterson and his partners researched carbon storage, other students in the class studied invasive earthworm populations or the number and variety of tree species on the edges of the forest versus the interior. One group did a comparison study between the Weigle-Roslien woodland and similar forests in Minnesota, and another took a historical perspective and tried to estimate the age of the forest and answer the question of why so many sugar maples persisted there.
“One of the most important things we learned,” says senior biology major Emma Stivers, “was to consider how much we could tackle. A lot of us have been on research projects in which the baseline was laid out for us and we were just adding to the data, and all of that prioritization work had already been done for us, so this was a very valuable learning experience for me.”
“And that’s a huge part of research,” adds Lynch.
Senior biology Marissa Wales explains that another challenge was the unpredictability of outdoor research: “You come up with a question and think about what data you want and what your methods are going to be, but often when you get out in the field little things come up, even with lots of planning. Plus, when you’re in the field, things take a lot longer than in the lab, where sometimes you’re working with bacteria that have really fast generation times.”
Lynch agrees. “I think it’s a really challenging thing to learn how to ask that kind of question—how do you ask a question about systems that are so complex, have long-lived species, and change over time that you can still answer in a semester? It’s very difficult to do.” She pauses to smile at the students. “But you guys pulled it off.”
“One of the reasons I was really excited to come to Luther in 2001 is because of all of the land immediately around campus that’s accessible for this kind of teaching,” says Lynch. “Because we have the land, and because it’s close, we can do this kind of work.”
It’s also possible, she says, because of small class sizes. “At many colleges, there would be too many students in an ecology class to give students this kind of experience,” she explains. “But at Luther, our classes are small enough that we can do real learning, and to me, this is real learning. The kinds of things Emma and Matt and Marissa have been taking about—I didn’t teach them any of it. I created a situation where they would learn these things. I like learning to happen from the bottom up rather than saying, ‘This is what you would experience if you were to actually do this yourself.’”
Weigle-Roslien proved the ideal spot for this approach. “In past years,” she says, “I’ve had students come up with independent research projects; it’s a hard thing to do, but I think they learn a lot from doing it. This year, we started by really getting to know the forest while we set up the permanent research plots. This experience of being in those woods and looking closely worked really well. The learning that happened during those first three weeks really set them up well to do a project. Every week I said: Okay, we have some work to get done, and it’s a lot of work, but I want you to also just be here and to look around and wonder.”
The Weigle-Roslien woodland, a 10.31-acre tract of land, was donated to the college by Luther emeriti professors James Weigle and Dave Roslein. Says professor of biology Beth Lynch, “Part of what this particular piece of property has to offer is that it is so different from what students are used to seeing and learning about, so I got really excited about being able to introduce them to a completely different kind of ecological community.