Department of Biology, Swarthmore College
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Summary of Proposed Activities with NSF-CCLI - Adaptation and Implementation Funding Request 2005:

Within the discipline of ecology, the study of communities and ecosystems presents unique difficulties for biology instructors seeking to provide undergraduates with independent or collaborative research opportunities. Investigations in these areas typically require long-term or large field studies and training in multiple disciplines. In the face of global environmental problems, a strong ecology curriculum also needs to provide the practical and intellectual tools for students to examine the impact of humans on the environment and search for solutions. This proposal seeks to enrich the ecology curriculum at Swarthmore College by establishing a long-term field study demonstrating the mechanistic and experimental nature of ecological science in which undergraduates can engage at all levels of instruction, from freshman to senior year. The subject is forest ecological stoichiometry. The setting is the Crum Woods of Swarthmore College, a tract of 236 forested acres (95 ha) adjacent to the College. We will investigate the balance of multiple chemical elements, their influence on tree species distribution and productivity, and their effect on nutrient and carbon cycling at the ecosystem level. In particular, students will gain an understanding of forest carbon sequestration and its relevance to elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

This curricular initiative engages students in a genuine experience with the scientific method. Teacher and student will work side-by-side as co-researchers, investigating open-ended questions with uncertain outcomes. The curriculum will create opportunities to address incomplete or erroneous ideas about the carbon and nutrient cycles. The field study will be implemented across the curriculum, which includes the introductory team-taught survey course Organismal and Population Biology, an intermediate level Ecology course, and the advanced independent research seminar Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning.

Intellectual merits: Researchers and modelers commonly make assumptions about the elemental composition of plant tissues, because measuring its variability within and among plants is expensive and time consuming. Furthermore, soil, roots, and the organisms living belowground are the hidden half of most terrestrial ecosystems, a significant and understudied area of ecology. By characterizing species-specific elemental composition and movement in the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum, students will be contributing novel and detailed data, enabling improvements in the quantification of carbon and nutrient budgets in forest ecosystems. These data will be of interest to those who study and model ecosystem processes.

Broader impacts: The proposed long-term field study will establish a framework for integrating biogeochemical research into undergraduate courses and for numerous and varied independent research and honors theses in ecology. Student learning will focus on application of the scientific method through collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of publishable data using state-of-the-art techniques and equipment typically limited to research universities. Students will present their findings at intra-college symposia and regional and national meetings. Course materials and data developed in this project will be disseminated through scientific and education meetings, journals and the Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology (TIEE) web site. The student body at Swarthmore includes approximately 32% domestic students of color. Of students who enter anticipating a major in science, about 28% are students of color and 48% are women; however, a recent analysis of institutional data highlighted poor retention within this group. This population may benefit especially from the hands-on approach and collegial laboratory environment created through this initiative. Furthermore, the proposed study will create a bridge between the disciplines of biology and chemistry for students with ecological interests from programs including Biology, Environmental Studies, and Engineering.

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