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Summer biology classes get students outdoors
It’s mid-morning in the Mill Creek watershed, located about 20 miles southwest of Rolla. The sun is beginning to break through the low clouds, sending beams of light shooting through a forest canopy of walnut, sycamore and oak trees. Dev Niyogi stands waist-deep in fast, clear-flowing water, talking to a dozen students, who are crowded on the spring’s sloping dirt bank, about the characteristics of Yelton Spring and the greater Mill Creek watershed. Yelton Spring’s discharge rate varies greatly by season, recent rains and the groundwater table level, he explains. Today the spring’s water level is high because of heavy rain the night before, Niyogi says, adding that he finds Yelton Spring to be “possibly the most beautiful place in Phelps County.”
Niyogi, an associate professor of biological sciences at Missouri S&T, asks for a student volunteer to join him in the frigid spring to help skim the water for marine invertebrates using a fishing net. Seth Mahon, a senior from Louisville, Kentucky, eagerly jumps into the water in board shorts and flip-flops. Two more students enter the spring with a multiparameter meter to record the depth, flow and temperature of the water, which is determined to be 56 degrees Fahrenheit.
Niyogi encourages the rest of his field ecology students to explore the spring and watershed. He asks them to make particular note of the vegetation specific to the spring as compared to the rest of the watershed. They scatter, individually and in small groups, to check water quality, catch tiny water critters like mayflies, and collect spring-specific flora.
Not a bad way to earn two credit hours.
Field ecology is one of four week-long, two credit courses offered every summer through the biological sciences department. These courses give students the chance to take what they learned in the classroom and apply it to the field. The other classes are cave biology, mammal ecology and vegetation of the Ozarks.
Mahon, an environmental engineering major says the courses provide “the actual application of what I learned in class,” including water quality testing. Mahon took field ecology and cave biology this summer.
Three of the four classes – field ecology, mammal ecology and vegetation of the Ozarks – use the Missouri S&T field station and surrounding Bohigian Conservation Area and Mark Twain National Forest as their classroom. But students aren’t always outdoors. The field station includes a room modified for use as a traditional classroom, with a projection screen and hot spot internet connection.
Students also benefit from the expertise of professional biologists. Mammal ecology, offered for the first time this year, is taught by Leah Berkman, adjunct professor of biological sciences and biometrician at the Missouri Department of Conservation. Justin Thomas, adjunct professor of biological sciences and instructor at the Institute of Botanical Training in Springfield, Missouri, teaches vegetation of the Ozarks.
The only class that does not take place at the field station is cave biology. Maria Potter, who teaches the course, is natural resource manager and superintendent at Onondaga Cave State Park, located 35 miles east of Rolla. She gives her students special access to Onondaga and Cathedral caves at Onondaga Cave State Park and Fisher Cave at Meramec State Park. Potter, who graduated with a master of science in environmental biology from Missouri S&T in 2008, says her course is “pretty popular” and fills up quickly. Students in the course learn about the biodiversity, geographic distribution, ecology and evolutionary biology of subterranean organisms, primarily those that live in caves, as well as the structure of subterranean communities and ecosystems.
Crystal Jones, a sophomore in biological sciences with an emphasis in pre-medicine from Rolla, took field ecology and cave biology. She transferred to Missouri S&T for the spring 2016 semester and registered for the courses because “they sounded fun.”
“I was told (Niyogi) was really passionate. I just wanted to jump in on that,” she says. “And I’m glad I did.”