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From beehives to pontoon boats

02/25/2013

Written by Megan Douglas, senior marketing major and rhetoric minor, university marketing and creative services intern

Students and professors share how Miami's nearby outdoor resources provide exciting opportunities for experiential learning.


Science is sweet as honey

A group of nervous students journey along a path at Miami’s Ecology Research Center (ERC) to encounter one of their biggest fears.

Memories of tiny, dangerous stingers stabbing them on playgrounds, in backyards and at parks haunt them as they approach an entire hive of busy bees. But these bees are different. Oxford beekeeper Alex Zomchek sprays smoke that puts the bees into a temporarily comatose state.

These once-intimidating insects are now as friendly as fireflies, letting students actually hold them and understand their behaviors firsthand while learning how their honey contributes to the environment.

This field lab is led by graduate assistant Alicia Campbell. Campbell still remembers her first experience at the beehive when she took field botany as an undergraduate. A then-English major, Alicia took the class as part of the Miami Plan liberal arts foundation coursework.

Students in the field botany lab learn about honeybees (photo by Scott Kissell)
Students in the field botany lab learn about honeybees (photo by Scott Kissell)
“It was really exciting for me to be able to get outside experience without being in a classroom, and my professor was really enthusiastic about it,” she recalls. After taking the course, Campbell decided to double major in English and botany.

Ecological field research comes alive for Campbell and hundreds of others at Miami’s ERC, where students of all majors experience the excitement that hands-on science can bring. This nearly 200-acre field station a few miles north of campus contains a mix of field sites and facilities. Here students can design, implement and observe field experiments in a natural habitat. They don’t need to rely on case studies, videos or photos of other experiments— they see them in their actual environment.

“Going to the ERC made the botany class more exciting, because we were able to go outside and experience what we were learning about. It's one thing to learn about pollination, bees and honey, but it's another to be able to see the bees in their hives and learn about what makes this such an important process in nature,” explained field botany student Molly Rzepka.

Food webs for thought

Across the field from the beehive, zoology professor Mike Vanni and his students take water samples from cattle tanks buried in the ground. Each tank is a mesocosm, an enclosed aquatic environment. In this limnology class, students are testing fresh water for global warming predictions in fish, algae and plankton.

“Through this, we are able to simulate how an increase in temperature could affect aquatic food webs,” Vanni explained.

The students—senior zoology and environmental science majors—are carrying out this experiment from start to finish. They also designed it themselves using modern as well as traditional research methods.

“They learn a lot about how to do science, how to design, execute, analyze data and write it up. They analyze data from start to end,” said Vanni, who is also the director of Miami’s Center for Aquatic and Watershed Sciences.

Secchi disks and water samples

Students, with professor Craig Williamson, collect samples from Acton Lake during a field ecology lab (photo by Scott Kissell)
Students, with professor Craig Williamson, collect samples from Acton Lake during a field ecology lab (photo by Scott Kissell)
On Acton Lake in nearby Hueston Woods State Park, students on the zoology department’s pontoon boat lower Secchi disks into the water that measure water transparency. These instruments help students determine at what depth microscopic plants stop producing oxygen and instead deplete it, thus causing dead zones in the lake.

Field ecology is taught by David Gorchov, professor of botany, and by Craig Williamson, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Ecology. “The main objective is to get students out there doing real hands-on things instead of lecturing. We look at ecological systems from woodlands to fields to lakes,” Williamson explained.

“There’s nothing like real experience to understanding the ecosystems and how they work,” he said. “I think students gain inspiration and the ability to think independently and put together the biggest pieces of the puzzle. They see real data and experience real systems, and it’s very different from reading about them.”

According to both Williamson and Vanni, few other universities have anything like Miami’s extensive and close-by outdoor facilities. They provide research opportunities for nonscience students as well as those who want to pursue careers in the field.

Learn more about Miami's nearby field research sites.

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