U.S.D.A. Grants College $95,000 for STEM Studies; Students Investigate Beetles

By Sadie Ross, director of environmental sustainability, Office of the President

March 5, 2012

Japanese BeetleIn the fall of 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology prepared a report which emphasized the concern that the number of students entering and graduating from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines falls alarmingly short of the nation’s requirement for maintaining global competitiveness in science and technology fields. SUNY schools are not an exception. A recent report states only 12 percent of SUNY degrees last year were awarded to students in STEM fields. That's well below the national average. 

Last November, Nikki Shrimpton, dean of the Central New York Center; Linda Jones, a faculty member at the Northeast Center, Saratoga Unit; and Sadie Ross, director of environmental sustainability, sat together to brainstorm how to get more SUNY Empire State College students involved in sciences and sustainability. Shrimpton has been interested in increasing hands-on science learning opportunities for students for a few years, and thought a citizen-science approach would be a great way to pique the interest of students and faculty. She is currently collaborating with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to develop a citizen-science project called “YardMap,” which will be available to community members soon, and can be used by faculty members to incorporate experiential learning into their studies.

“I wanted to take the collaborative and experiential learning aspects of a citizen-science project and develop a learning module that would be of interest to faculty across all areas of study,” Shrimpton said.

The three women used their past experiences with citizen-science projects and natural resources curriculum and developed a concept for the learning module, “An Undergraduate Research Experience: Using Technology to Monitor Japanese Beetles Related to Climate Change, Across New York State,” more commonly referred to as “The Beetle Project.”

While participating in The Beetle Project, students will contribute to the development of a visual, virtual map of the life stages and population density of Japanese beetles across the state of New York. Students will make observations and record data regarding the insect life cycle, vegetation, soil properties and types and atmospheric conditions. They will analyze the data using GIS to discern spatial and temporal patterns of beetle life stages across New York, phenological correlations and climate trends. Participation in the project will enable students to better understand the ways climate change alters local ecosystems, and the impacts on biodiversity and non-native species.

With his expertise in GIS and his interest in citizen science, instructional technologist at the college Kent Stanton was an obvious choice to ask to join the group to start developing the project. He enhanced the project by suggesting the addition of a social-networking aspect to the to the GIS platform. He also suggested that the group develop the learning module using open-source software so faculty members anywhere can adapt the module to their needs.

Ross got to work identifying a source of funds to develop this learning module and purchase the equipment that would be needed to collect data. She said, “I came across the U.S.D.A. Higher Education Challenge Grants and I knew right away our project would be a good fit.”

The $95,000 grant was approved in August, and the group is currently working on developing a data-collection protocol for students and putting together the GIS framework. Jones will begin incorporating pieces of the learning module into her studies this fall. Faculty across the college can get involved by incorporating the module into one or more of their studies in January, May, and/or September, and beyond.

The module has been designed to fit both science and non-science studies and can be adapted for any area of study or concentration. Students will have the opportunity to learn more about their local environment and participate in a learning community with others who share their interest in the environment. The module will include:

  • field sampling of atmosphere, soils, vegetation and Japanese Beetles (grubs and/or adults depending on the season. A portion of the grant funding is dedicated to the purchase of field monitoring equipment.
  • participation in an online citizen-science community
  • introduction to spatial analysis using GIS.

A unique aspect of the project is that it does not require an entire course redesign, but the insertion of research experience into a course faculty and mentors already offer. The content for the module can be adapted to the content of their studies. Studies that contain any type of content related to non-native species, climate, citizen science, and science education would work well. Examples include studies related to:

  • biology, ecology, environmental science/studies, atmospheric science/climatology, GIS, statistics
  • historical movement of organisms
  • impacts of non-native species on native species’ populations and local ecosystems
  • economic impacts of non-native and invasive species
  • policy creation related to movement of species (globalization)
  • science education, engaging students in science, citizen science and lifelong learning
  • the use of technology to collect and analyze data
  • literature studies focused on nature or “cultivating one’s garden.”

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