A walk in the woods: Fieldwork brings hands-on learning full circle
It was a sunny and mild morning March 3 when 18 students left UW-Green Bay to travel to Wabikon National Forest for the opportunity to track small mammals with the help of longtime UW-Green Bay Prof. Robert Howe.
This year’s field trip to Wabikon Forest Dynamic Plot was the latest excursion hosted by Howe and a team of UW-Green Bay graduate students. The plot is located approximately 85 miles northwest of UW-Green Bay near Townsend. Snowfall throughout the week preceding the field trip was helpful in creating a perfect setting for tracking the mammals that call the forest floor their home.
The Wabikon Forest Dynamic plot has been utilized by Howe and other scientists to determine which types of mammals inhabit Wabikon — and their approximate population — as well as other important fieldwork since 2007.
When the bus came to rest on the road that would take the travelers to the 6-year-old plot, it quickly became apparent that blazing trails through the crisp snow would be the primary source of annoyance for the afternoon field trip. Despite the minor inconvenience, most were in high spirits and prepared for the 30-minute hike to the plotted grid.
“Systematically recording the mammal tracks within the three columns today will increase students’ ability to recognize these animal tracks in the future,” Howe said. “We could see fisher, coyote and possibly even fox.”
Students were bundled up for the trek through the woods because in order to find the small creatures, you had to go where they lived — often under the knee-deep snow. Luckily, students only had to be on the lookout for tracks on top of the snow.
One UW-Green Bay graduate student was engaged in research of a different nature during the trip. Cindy Burtley has been researching tree growth throughout the plot. By measuring the growth or stagnation of different species of trees, Burtley and her colleagues can compare the results and allow for better forest management practices.
“By installing metal bands on the trees and measuring growth, we can tell how different species grow during different parts of the year,” Burtley said. “We didn’t anticipate how much some trees have shrunk.”
The excursion exemplifies UW-Green Bay’s 360° of Learning approach, allowing students to participate in activities that facilitate greater understanding of what it means to work in the field — with top-notch faculty — and how this work directly relates to their coursework. It’s a focus on student-centered learning from multiple perspectives that shows students what they enjoy — or may not enjoy — about their chosen career path.
“So many students don’t get to experience field work,” Burtley said. “They think because they like going out in the woods and hunting, that this is for them, and this isn’t always how it works.”
As snow crunched underneath their boots, students surveyed the ground hoping to spot tiny tracks, which were sometimes so faint that the only way to determine the species was to get on hands and knees and squint at the subtle markings. After a handful of these encounters, Howe made quick use of his logbook.
“Indistinguishable mammal,” he said.
Wabikon Forest Dynamics Plot could become a second home to some mammalogy students if their experience is a positive one. UW-Green Bay senior biology student Jesse Weinzinger noted that the trip might be the first time in a young biology student’s career in which he or she enters the field.
“Being able to search for and determine the difference between deer, weasel or other mammal tracks is just the beginning,” Weinzinger said. “This trip could open doors to enable them to develop their own research project and to better their knowledge on their way to becoming a biologist.”
After several hours of searching for small mammal tracks in knee-deep snow, the four groups gathered to rest and reflect on what each logbook now contained. Discussion was often filled with the Howe’s ideas about the different discoveries and how each year’s trip was different from the one before it.
As the bus pulled into UW-Green Bay and the 18 students departed, it was clear that each explorer had taken from the experience what it means to become a scientist. As long as Howe continues to lead this type of fieldwork, students at UW-Green Bay will continue to develop a unique brand of critical thinking.
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