Dr. Ava Howard is a Biology professor at Western Oregon University who recently taught a field research practicum course over the summer. She has been teaching plant biology and ecology at WOU for 13 years. In addition to teaching, she is also involved in creating scholarship and research opportunities for students, which she is very passionate about.
“I’m a huge proponent of undergraduate research experiences,” she explained. “It’s incredibly important to give our students opportunities, not just to learn what’s already known in our fields, but to also engage in the process of creative scholarship.”
This particular research course took place last summer on Tampico Ridge. “It’s only about 20 minutes away from Western. Part of my goal of establishing the field research site out there was to make it accessible for a lot of students.
The purpose of the project, according to the course description, is “to investigate the response of upland wooded and savannah ecosystems in the Willamette Valley to successional change and restoration interventions.” Dr. Howard said that oak woodlands and oak savannahs used to be a dominant habitat type in this region and was maintained by indigenous people, but since European settlement, the ecosystems have been in decline. “We’re talking 3-5% of this habitat is left at this point, so there’s a lot of interest now in restoration efforts.”
Nine students participated in the three-week course, including three who took the course last year and agreed to return. Seven out of nine students identify as being a member of a marginalized group, including people of color, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities. Dr. Howard said such diversity was intentional. “I make sure that students know that diversity of identity is really important in the creative process of scholarship. Bringing different perspectives of different kinds of people together and then working closely together is incredibly important for the creative process of figuring things out.
Kai Miller, a senior studying chemistry, said that the diversity of the team had a positive impact on the experience. “Having a diverse group of students allowed for a variety of bright minds to come together and bring their own sets of skills and experience to the research. The science field has always been white male-dominated, so bringing in minds from other backgrounds is extremely beneficial, as it can allow them to apply their own knowledge and interpretation of the topic at hand. It was nice being a part of a group so accepting of all sorts of backgrounds. That environment brings out the best in people.”
To Dr. Howard, research practicums like these are highly important to the development of scientific skills in students. “It’s an opportunity for students to build transferable skills like teamwork and precision measurement and all those sorts of things.”
Yasmin Schulberg, a senior studying biology with a minor in chemistry, described a similar impact the course had on her. “This course has pushed me to think outside of the box and realize how biology is so interconnected. For example, a little worm has the ability to ruin the entirety of an oak’s reproductive success by eating an acorn, and in turn, lower the biodiversity of an ecosystem. (The course) has also helped with my teamwork skills. Whether it’s working in the field on a hot day or conducting a yearlong project together, it’s taught me more about how a group of people can work together over a long period of time to effectively complete a task. I believe that after graduation I’ll continue to utilize the analytical and teamwork skills this team has taught me.”
Before the students began the actual research, they went through a week of pre-training to equip them for the course. Dr. Howard said, “They have to master skills and get to a certain level of proficiency because unlike a lab, where it’s just experience for you, this is a real project.” Dr. Howard also said the hands-on nature of the course can lead to moments of discovery for students. “That first week, many of them are immediately telling me things like, ‘Wow, I finally feel like I get this thing that I learned about in my 200 biology class’ and ‘This is this thing you told us about back in principles of biology!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah!’”
Students used a wide variety of research methods in the day-to-day activities of the course, including using pressurized cannons to launch rigging lines into the canopy to collect samples, different sweeping and netting techniques to sample invertebrates, coring the trunks of trees, time constraint searches, measuring the circumference of trees, recording reptile species attracted to sunning tins, recording bird counts with experienced birders, putting samples in a pressure chamber to extract water from leaves. Dr. Howard said this technique “allows us to understand how much water stress there is in the ecosystem for these dominant trees.” She went on to explain, “We have to sample them both during the most stressful part of the diurnal cycle, which is the afternoon, as well as during the least stressful part, which is predawn.”
When I asked Em Ricci, a junior studying field biology, what the day-to-day experience of the course was like, they said, “It’s very community-based because you have to work together. You have to let each other know how you’re doing. If you’re overexerting yourself, everyone’s like, ‘Now, go take a break, sit down’ so it’s a very ‘you help me, I help you’-type experience, but it’s also really rigorous. One thing that we had to do was take field notes, and you’d have to have a pretty rigorous schedule with what you were doing and when you were doing it. It’s this really interesting connection between in-classroom work, where you have this rigorous science, but then you put it outside on this hike, where you’re having to look at everything around you and work and walk around. It’s pretty awesome.”
As excited as she is about the science that’s occurring, though, Dr. Howard’s favorite part of the course is the opportunity to build relationships with her students. “I get to support the development of those students in a way I don’t get to in a standard course. I always try to share my passion for my field, be that in a lecture or laboratory, but I think it comes alive when I’m out there working at the site. What I really enjoy is the moments where I get to help them develop their identity as a scientist in training, and talk to them in an informal setting where they feel comfortable about the intersectionality of our personal identities, and the careers and dreams and aspirations that they have. I mean, how often do you sit down and talk to a professor about that intersectionality? We often work in partners, so I might be sitting down under an oak tree, catching my breath with a student, and say, ‘Let’s lay down in the grass; look up at the leaves.’ Just have a moment, just quiet – and then they’ll ask a question, like, ‘So have you ever struggled to do…’ It’s the opening of a conversation, where I can say, ‘Yeah, I have, actually.’ It’s a chance for me, one-on-one to reply to that student, and to share, and to help people begin to explore, rather than just ignore those important connections for themselves.”
For future students interested in doing a field study course, Ricci had one simple piece of advice. “Just try it. You don’t know what you’re going to really like. We had people who didn’t necessarily fit the mold of field biology but who went out and had this experience. It’s very important to get these experiences and to grow yourself by doing things that push your comfort zone. Even if you’re a complete homebody, it’s going to be great. Go out there, and just try it.”
For students who want to learn more about majoring in biology, check out the biology degree page.