Natural Sciences Department

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Grant helps students become environmental stewards for Wisconsin Point

Posted on Sep 2, 2010
A grant through the GLISTEN program helps students learn about science and public service -- and it will help the environment. 
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Don Lisdahl, standing, checks GPS coordinates while Matt Jahnke analyzes the area to be sample for plants.

Don Lisdahl, standing, checks GPS coordinates while Matt Jahnke analyzes the area to be sample for plants.

On a stiflingly humid summer day, Matt Jahnke and Don Lisdahl are slowly ranging over the dunes on Wisconsin Point, carefully tracking their location on a GPS device as they sidestep poison ivy.

Every few yards they stop, lay down a hollow plastic square and then carefully analyze the plants that lay within the square. They identify the species, note their density and the presence of any invasive plants - species not native to the dry, sandy environment of a Lake Superior dune. Occasionally they clip a sample from a plant to take back to the lab for further study and identification.

Jahnke and Lisdahl, biology majors at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, are conducting the first plant survey in 50 years on Wisconsin Point, the long finger of beach, dunes and forest that separates Superior Bay from Lake Superior. Their work will guide other students in learning more about the point's dune environment, and possibly help future efforts to manage the area and rid it of invasive plant species.

Science and Academic Service-Learning

The two students are working under the guidance of Dr. Nick Danz, assistant professor of biology at UW-Superior, as part of the university's Academic Service-Learning program. Their work is funded through the Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship Through Education Network - or GLISTEN - a program funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which supports students in service-learning projects throughout the country.

The National Center for Science and Civic Engagement of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology is sponsoring 10 GLISTEN projects around the Great Lakes. The Western Lake Superior GLISTEN project is led by the University of Minnesota Duluth Natural Resources Research Institute, and includes UW-Superior, Lake Superior College in Duluth, and Northland College in Ashland, Wis.

Academic and community environmental groups around the Great Lakes are receiving GLISTEN funds to train undergraduate students as stewardship liaisons, who will receive leadership, service-learning and community engagement training, as well as practical, on-the-job training from community organizations.

Develop skills in science and service

At UW-Superior, the GLISTEN funding is helping students develop skills in science and public service, specifically in a project aimed at Great Lakes stewardship. Danz hopes the work will become part of a larger research program he wants to create to determine how the plants of Wisconsin Point have changed over the past 50 years.

Long term, the project could help develop a management plan for the city of Superior to use on the point. "We can use that information as a baseline to help us determine what we want Wisconsin Point to be like in the future," he said.

Searching for invaders

As part of the project, Jahnke, who is from Neenah, Wis., and Lisdahl, who's from Superior, are identifying places on the point where invasive plants have taken root. Danz is developing lessons for his biology classes on habitat restoration and, with city approval, will guide his students in removing the invaders.

The first step came in summer 2010 when Danz hired Jahnke and Lisdahl to conduct the first full plant survey of Wisconsin Point in more than 50 years. They're comparing their findings to those published by John Curtis in his landmark "Vegetation of Wisconsin," a book published in 1956 that included information about the dunes near the Superior Entry.

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, scientists generally have found decreased species diversity and increased numbers of invasive species since Curtis did his survey. "Don and Matt will be trying to find out to what extent that's happened on Wisconsin Point," Danz said.

Earning science experience

For their part, the survey was good experience for two men who plan to make science a career. Both are specializing their studies in botany, and they've worked with Danz in UW-Superior's Davidson Herbarium, a repository of local plant samples.

The students worked part time during the summer to plan and conduct their scientific survey. They plotted and followed a series of "transects" - imaginary lines across the point. Every five meters, they laid down their hollow plastic square - call a quadrate -- which covered one square meter. In each meter they tallied the types of plants - everything from American beach grass to milkweed to poison ivy -- and noted the nature of the environment and the abundance of the plants.

Each transect and the location of each quadrate was carefully plotted using GPS.  During Fall 2010, the students will use that information along with their survey findings to build a database using geographic information systems equipment at UW-Superior.

Both students said they value the opportunity to gain practical experience and contribute to work on a valuable local environment.

"Since Wisconsin Point is a treasure for so many reasons, including its flora and fauna, we want to study how it has changed and help develop a plan for management," Jahnke said.

"For me personally, it's valuable to be getting field experience; doing the survey work and learning new plants," he said. "I spent many, many hours trying to identify one plant, but that's good, too. I used the books and became familiar with using the microscope."

Field work and computer models

"It's fun doing the field identification and getting enough data to build computer models," Lisdahl said. "Doing the project from the ground up and having control of it is good experience."

Danz said the Wisconsin Point project provides valuable experience to Jahnke and Lisdahl.

"They're learning how to survey plants and learning plants of the dunes. They're learning how to do science starting with an objective and collecting data all the way through analysis and making conclusions about the data," he said. "They're also developing connections in the community and, most importantly, they're striving to protect an important Great Lakes resource."

News Contact: Steve Hagedorn | 715-394-8004 | shagedor{atuws}
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