For Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota undergraduate college science students, the outdoors is often their laboratory.

All environmental courses with labs have multiple outdoor learning experiences: on the Winona Campus, on the Mississippi River, and other unique habitats in Southeastern Minnesota.

Many students perform research in the local environment. At the recent college campus Celebration of Scholarship, one-third of the biology and chemistry presentations focused on outdoor research. The university’s Winona location provides easy access to a diversity of ecological habitats within 30 minutes of campus—hardwood forests, various prairies types, savannas, trout streams, cool-water streams, the Mississippi River, and Lake Winona. Students are able to directly observe organisms and learn concepts rather than merely see them in photographs or slides.

On a recent Saturday, 10 students (most in biology-related majors, but some as part of an Outdoor Leadership group) helped perform an intentional spring burn of the prairie at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center near Lanesboro, Minn. Students learned the benefits of clearing weeds and debris to help a native prairie habitat flourish and were trained in the proper tools and techniques required. Under the supervision of Eagle Bluff staff and Saint Mary’s professors, the students got their hands and clothes dirty lighting and controlling an acres-wide blaze.

“Experience like this helps enhance the things we learn in the classroom. We can apply things we learn in real life,” said Hailey Cottle, a first-year Biology/-Pre-Physical Therapy major from Orting, Wash.

Dr. Josh Lallaman, assistant professor of biology, said following the burn: “We talk about this type of habitat management in many of our classes, but few students actually have the opportunity to actively participate in a controlled burn. They learned basic fire safety, how to control burn paths, and the importance of fire in maintaining native prairie. They were surprised to see how quickly the fire spread through the prairie and how effectively small fires could control the path of the main fire,” Lallaman added.

First-year student Hailey Cottle strategically torches last year’s vegetation to make room for new prairie growth.

Cottle participated in the prairie burn because she “wanted a chance to get outdoors, gain some experience on how to properly burn a prairie, as well as have fun with my fellow classmates. The experience was really cool,” she said. “I learned that to keep a fire contained, sometimes you need to use a technique called backburning.”

As a side benefit during the recent prairie controlled burn, Lallaman said, “students also learned about post-graduate internship opportunities at Eagle Bluff from the naturalist staff.”

In addition to the prairie burn, Lallaman regularly takes students onto the Mississippi River from the university’s Prairie Island Field Station. On the river, students learn sampling techniques and help with research on large species of fish.

According to students like Cottle, Saint Mary’s Winona Campus “is located in the perfect area. The surrounding bluffs, lakes, and rivers are full of wildlife and beautiful scenery,” Cottle remarked.

Here are a few more examples of Saint Mary’s science students using the nearby outdoors for hands-on learning supervised by science faculty members:

  • Students contribute to research on the interaction between an invasive plant (Japanese barberry), deer ticks (the ones that carry Lyme disease), and small mammals by collecting ticks and mice.
  • Students learn how and where animals move by “powder tracking,” a technique of catching, dipping in fluorescent powder, and releasing deer mice to track them at night using UV lights.
  • Students record the echolocation calls of bats, using specialized equipment to record the ultrasonic calls and determine what species occur and where.
  • Students learn live-animal handling techniques and how to measure—as well as observe—wild animals and describe different behaviors.
  • Students learn to use radio-telemetry units (along with transmitters that attach to animals to follow their movements) and trail cameras.
  • Students make regular on-campus field trips to sample Gilmore Creek for invertebrate animals.
  • Students learn to identify rare plant species in the field and how to perform plant community assessments.
  • Students set up ecological studies to investigate the complex relationships among plants and animals, including what vegetation insects, mammals and birds eat, seed dispersal, the impact of invasive species, and potential of biological control agents.
  • Students apply concepts in organic chemistry to research ant biology, exploring the chemical signals on the exterior of ants. These “signatures” allow ants to recognize friend from foe and help them divide tasks in their colonies.
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