New geology course takes learning to the next level with wetlands research

September 18, 2009

Two charter buses filled with Indiana State University students headed into West Terre Haute Saturday (Sept. 12) to get down and dirty with wetlands research.Upon arrival, the students of the newly added geology course, Introduction to Environmental Science, headed out into the woods to take on a day of hands-on learning and a few mosquito bites.

Walking down small, underdeveloped trails and stomping through mud in Vigo County's wetlands to collect water and soil samples was part of the day-long learning experience for the students. Jim Speer and Jennifer Latimer, assistant professors in the department of geography, geology and anthropology, received funding for the trip from the Center for Public Service and Community Engagement.

"It was a straightforward process," Speer said. "This project is not only getting students involved in what they are learning, it is also getting them more involved in the community."

This research is not just beneficial to the students' learning. Its purpose is to help preserve the wetlands in the area. Riverscape is a project that was formulated by the Vigo County Area Planning Department and Indiana State is partnering in the project by actively involving students in the research to find answers for wetland preservation.

"This project is ideal for our classes because of the proximity to campus," Speer said.

The new course Geology 110 is part of the two-year reorganization of the department into a new department called earth and environmental systems.

"This is a good opportunity for our students in this course to engage in because it's more than just paved surfaces, it's the natural environment," Latimer said.

Once the students all gathered in the wooded area next to the wetlands, Speer, appearing like a navigator with an Indiana Jones-look about him, spoke about what the day was going to entail as he stood on top of a mossy log. He and Latimer discussed the importance of the wetlands and the research.

"Wetland preservation is a serious issue," Speer said. "The wetlands help filter our water and are home to many plants and animals."

 

"Wetlands are where the ground water is relatively close to the surface. They help prevent floods, filter our water and are home to many unique plant and animal species," Latimer said. "Unfortunately, our wetlands are disappearing due to construction and other man made obstacles."Once their speeches concluded, they asked the students to explore the natural environment around them to get a feel of how a real scientist conducts research. They all scattered to listen to the whistling of the cicadas and to observe the environment. This gave the students the chance to journal about their surroundings and experiences. The students then broke up into four different groups. Group A went with Speer to learn more about dendrology - the study of trees. Group B went with ISU graduate student Windy McBride for water chemistry sampling and group C went with Latimer to take soil samples from the wetlands. Group D went bird watching with ISU graduate student Dave Bohnert and McNair Scholar Emily Pugh, who is an ISU senior from Cory studying geology."It is great to get undergraduates outside to get a better appreciation of the outdoors and what it has to offer," she said. She took their group deep into the woods to find ideal places to watch for different species of birds and learn about bird calling. Speer's group marked an area with tape to start coring different trees to find out their ages. He used a tool called an increment borer to screw into the tree to pull out a core to help determine the age of the tree. All of the students were able to practice this method by collecting samples and preserving them in paper straws.On the other side of the gravel lot where the students were first dropped off at, Latimer and her group of students observed the wetlands and took samples of soil and water. To get the samples of the soil underneath the water, the students used a rope attached to what looked like two metal scoops. They threw it into the water and the scoops were pulled along the bottom of the body of water to gather the soil.

 

The water samples were collected in a similar fashion. A tube was tied to the end of a rope that was thrown into the water and pulled back in to shore. The students were able to do some water chemistry experiments at the site to learn more about what was in the water.

Each group spent approximately 45 minutes in each area of research before rotating to the next research area.

Experiential learning is a key aspect of the curriculum at ISU.

"I believe that ISU demonstrates a high degree of experiential learning," Speer said. "Almost every class in our department involves the students in some sort of hands-on experience."

Although this was a required trip for the students of Geology 110, many of them thought it was a great experience.

"This research helps us get more in touch with the environment in Terre Haute. It is fun to get out and be more involved in our class," said Daniel French, freshman business and computer engineering major of Terre Haute.

Jessica Adamic, native of North Branch, Mich., and ISU alumna of the graduate program in the department of geography, geology and anthropology, came out to help with the research. She thought that her studies at ISU actively involved her in what she was learning.

"I hope that students will enjoy the outdoors and see all of the habitats and ecosystems and discover their importance," she said.

Many students probably thought that spending all day out in the woods was not what they had in mind for a Saturday, but they were able to apply their studies to the actual environment and help the community at the same time.

"This research is interesting to do. It is something that all college students should experience," said Arnaud Balma, junior management information systems major from Terre Haute.

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Contact: Jim Speer, associate professor of geography and geology, (812) 237-3011, jspeer3@isugw.indstate.edu or Jennifer Latimer, assistant professor of geology, (812) 237-2254, jlatimer@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Bailee Souder, Indiana State University, media relations intern, (812) 237-3773, bsouder1@indstate.edu

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/649364664_Q8mFr-L.jpg

Cutline: Associate Professor Jim Speer listens as Assistant Professor Jennifer Latimer instructs students at the wetlands as part of an environmental science class. ISU Photo/ Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/649373117_KSkmH-L.jpg

Cutline: Students took time to journal about their surroundings and experiences in the woods. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/649389909_uvR3P-L.jpg

Cutline: Students take soil samples from the bottom of the water to study in the lab. ISU Photo/Tony Campbell