Restoration Ecology students gain skills through service-learning

Tending our natural gardens

Haley Meek screens and sorts mountain mint seeds
Haley Meek screens and sorts mountain mint seeds.

By Bonnie Blankinship

The grounds of University House, the official residence of the Bowling Green State University president, include a large, manicured lawn. But behind the green lawn is an equally important but less obviously tended space, a short-grass prairie that the University is carefully returning to its native state.

The acreage also functions as a learning lab for students in Dr. Helen Michaels' Restoration Ecology class , where they can observe and identify native and non-native plant species, encouraging the native varieties while destroying the non-native and "woody invasive" ones. The hands-on and laboratory experiences and field trips of the course complement the theoretical and conceptual background they learn in class.

Although in fall the prairie is brown and dry, it is still an important time for student service-learning. Recently they were out with Michaels on a gray and chilly day, collecting seeds of plants such as the fragrant mountain mint, big bluestem grass, pearly everlasting and wild bergamot, or bee balm, for replanting in the spring, when the prairie will be blooming with color.

Students observed as Michaels demonstrated the use of the improvised "tongs of death," as she humorously calls the large barbecue tongs fitted with disposable foam paint brushes saturated with an herbicide to kill the undesirable plants.

"These are great for selectively treating tissues of invasive species we don't want without damaging other plants," she said. The technique is part of the herbicide training students learn in class.

Armed with a sharp limb cutter, junior ecology and conservation major Tim Kleman tramped through the grass and brush seeking the woody invasives to saw off. He has experience in this type of removal from his service as the ecology director at the Boy Scout Camp Frontier in Pioneer, Ohio, and is expanding his skills through the Restoration Ecology class.

"These hands-on experiences are what give the students the skills they need to actually get a job, and it's clearly helping," Michaels said. "And the students seem to love it."

Student Katie Wallroff said the experiences have "given me a chance to explore nature in a new way."

BGSU President Mary Ellen Mazey said she is thrilled that the prairie at the residence can be used as a laboratory. "BGSU is committed to preparing students for their careers and for lifelong learning. The meadow provides a valuable learning experience for students, and I am so pleased that Dr. Michaels has incorporated the space in her teaching and research," she said.

The experiences in the course include observing controlled burns, a specialized land management technique, and instruction on how obtain official certification, also known as the "red card." Benjamin Bomlitz, a nontraditional student who will graduate in December, has interned with the Campus Operations grounds department and participated in a burn last year at the University's Poe Prairie site at Mercer and Poe roads.

The Poe Prairie, a tall-grass prairie, is different from the University House short-grass ecosystem and demands different treatment, as do wetlands and forest habitats.

Land management skills include deciding which technique to use, when and if to plant, and soil analysis. Students learn about not only the individual plants but how they function in a plant community.

A student from the 2015 Restoration Ecology class, Dylan Jacobs, volunteered with the Nature Conservancy for his service-learning hours and went on to complete his certification in controlled burns. He was hired as a seasonal employee and is now a permanent Nature Conservancy employee.

"The staff at the Nature Conservancy has allocated and invested considerable time in sharing their expertise and equipment to provide our Restoration Ecology class with hands-on, active learning experiences," said Michaels, an associate professor of biology.

This year, each student must perform 10 hours of service, mostly independently organized by them. In addition to the University House restoration and extensive work with the Nature Conservancy in Oak Openings and other of its sites, students also do invasive species removal plus forest vegetation analysis for wetland delineation at the University's Steidtmann Woods. Other activities include campus prairie restorations, seed collecting and herbiciding at Poe Prairie. They also perform similar work for the Wood County Park District, Toledo Metroparks and Ohio Natural Areas and Preserves Association.

"The service-learning also allows them to interact with agency people and helps them define their career path," Michaels said.

"I think this is a great experience because it is really insightful to see what people within this field do on a daily basis," said Rachel Chafee, a biology major. "I believe it's better to see it done and what the job actually entails instead of reading a job description that probably sounds more luxurious than it actually is. This class has really shaped my career path because now I know more about what I am interested in. I think the hands-on experience really solidifies the concepts that we learn within the classroom because we are not just reading words on pages, we are seeing the restoration process being done firsthand."

"This has given me a lot of experience with a lot of different skills," said Hayley Meek, a graduate student in biology specializing in ecology.

Back in the classroom another week, following Michaels' lecture the students clean and package the seeds they've collected, which will be planted in the spring. They strip the seeds from the dry stems, pushing them through layers of increasingly finer sieves in metal canisters until they are left with clean seeds that they place into labeled small plastic bags.

"I have learned a lot from The Nature Conservancy and the learning experiences during our field trips," Kleman said. "The hands-on experiences give a better understanding of restoration processes. Learning about restoration practices in lecture is ok, but to really understand how to do restoration you have to go out to do it. These hands-on learning experiences are also good to put on a resume."

The class includes both undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of majors including environmental science, biology and environmental policy. They also have varying career goals. Kleman plans to work in ornithology or fish and wildlife management. Alison Saltzman, a conservation biology major, plans to pursue a master's in education and teach high school biology, preferably in a vocational school like the one she went to. Shelby Cabrera, a marine biology major, would like to work in conservation for a government agency.