Learning outside the classroom box

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Missouri S&T students enrolled in the summer Field Ecology course return to the field station at the Bohigian Conservation Area after conducting experiments in Mill Creek.

Southwest of Rolla, 10 acres of land once farmed by some of the area’s earliest settlers is now being explored by Missouri S&T students, who are themselves pioneers of a sort.

Students who took Field Ecology, Cave Biology or Vegetation of the Ozarks courses over the summer were among the first to spend more time in this outdoor laboratory than inside a classroom. They studied in and alongside three spring-fed ponds, a wetland fen, a nearby stream and countless flora and fauna.

Missouri S&T officials plan to convert the area into a field station that will be used by students in many disciplines – from biological sciences and environmental engineering to history or English.

“This field station idea goes hand in hand with the S&T concept of taking learning out of the classrooms and out of the labs and into the real world,” says Stephen Roberts, vice provost and dean for the College of Arts, Sciences, and Business.

The 12 students enrolled in S&T’s Field Ecology course last May were the first to take the course on the property. The 10-acre tract is located in the Mill Creek Watershed, southwest of Rolla and near Newburg. Part of the Bohigian Conservation Area, it is owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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For students in Dev Niyogi’s Field Ecology course, the Bohigian Conservation Area is their classroom. The students spent the final week of May learning about flora and fauna at the site. The university plans to expand use of the area for a variety of majors.

The area was originally settled by the Yelton family in the 1860s, says George M. Bohigian, an ophthalmologist from St. Louis who purchased hundreds of acres of the watershed property and donated it to the Department of Conservation. The Yelton family log cabin, built in 1868, still stands on the property, original timber and chinking intact. Connected to that cabin is an addition built in the 1950s. Roberts hopes to turn the addition into classroom and lab space for the field station. But that is only the beginning. He envisions overnight accommodations for classrooms and field trips – even summer camps – to be a part of the field station.

Today, the site is the habitat of beavers, otters, muskrats and numerous species of freshwater fish in the ponds and Mill Creek. Reproducing rainbow trout are plentiful in Mill Creek, while an endangered insect – the Hine’s emerald dragonfly – inhabits the nearby Kaintuck Fen, says Dev Niyogi, an associate professor of biological sciences who teaches the Field Ecology course. Some aquatic “species of concern” – including the plains topminnow and the least darter – live within the proposed field station site, he says.

“The plains topminnow is in the ponds and probably the wetlands as well, and in some parts of Mill Creek,” Niyogi says. “The least darter is in some ponds nearby in the watershed.”

Bohigian has an agreement with the Department of Conservation to use the cabin and adjacent 10 acres of land until early January 2017. He approached Missouri S&T about using the site as a field station, and he and Missouri S&T are now working with the state to come to a long-term arrangement whereby S&T could establish the field station there.

In the meantime, Bohigian and the Department of Conservation continue to work with Missouri S&T to provide opportunities for field work. That’s what students enrolled in Field Ecology love the most.

“I’m a nature lover,” says Tara Voyles, a senior in biological sciences who enrolled in the class last May, “so I think it’s interesting that you get to do everything outside. It’s all completely hands-on.”

Voyles stood ankle-deep in Mill Creek, measuring stream velocity with a metal rod and a Flow Mate 2000 flow rate meter, as Niyogi told the class why this applied approach to studying ecology is important.

“This is a great learning opportunity,” Niyogi says. “There are some subjects you just can’t learn in a lab, and field ecology is one of them.”

For information on supporting the field station project, contact Kristen Gallagher, executive director of development for the College of Arts, Sciences, and Business, at gallagherkr@mst.edu or 573-341-6050.

Story by Andrew Careaga
Photos by Sam O’Keefe

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