NSF Grant Supports Student Research in Crum Woods
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $150,000 grant to Jose-Luis Machado, associate professor of biology, allowing him to take the study of ecology at Swarthmore to a new level by supporting student research in the Crum Woods.
A plant ecologist who emigrated to the United States from Colombia, Machado has redesigned biology and environmental studies courses to turn the Crum Woods into a classroom for students at all levels, from freshmen in introductory biology to seniors in honors seminars, giving them opportunities to compile and analyze data from the woods and develop a long-term ecological site.
Machado has used the Crum Woods as a springboard for reinventing the ecology curriculum. "I came to Swarthmore in 2001 as a new assistant professor desperate to figure out how to teach ecology in a nontraditional way," he said. "The Crum Woods gave me an opportunity to ask "What are the important questions?" and "How does ecology impact our day-to-day life?"
Machado calls his curriculum a "top down" approach that examines the ways in which components of an ecosystem-atmosphere, plants, and soils-work together as well as the important contribution forests make to humankind, including water purification and carbon dioxide sequestration. His students get their hands dirty by collecting samples, digging below ground, and sorting and weighing the plant species that inhabit the Crum Woods. New equipment funded by the NSF will allow students to analyze plant and soil elemental chemistry and study nutrient recycling. Machado expects to develop an ecology curriculum that will serve as a teaching model for other colleges and universities.
The 236-acre woods make a good living laboratory because they are diverse and mature, Machado said. They encompass a floodplain, a swamp, and many upland forest types populated both by native and invasive plant species.
"I think we're lucky to have the Crum so close by and accessible to us," said Lauren Richie '09, a biology major and environmental studies minor. "Research carried out in a natural setting adds a whole new dimension to what you're studying-there are factors and processes at work that you can't predict and that raise new questions that you might not expect. I think our field work will help in preparation for more advanced research."