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Center for Academic Service - Learning

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Students gain science skills, help community on the shores of Lake Superior

Posted on Sep 1, 2011
A survey of invasive plant species could help improve the environment of a Lake Superior gem.
click to enlarge
Biology majors Glenn Belde, left, and Dan Fraser are gaining research experience as part of an academic service-learning project on Wisconsin Point.

Biology majors Glenn Belde, left, and Dan Fraser are gaining research experience as part of an academic service-learning project on Wisconsin Point.

See photos of Glenn and Dan at work on Wisconsin Point.

As light rain begins to fall, Glenn Belde and Dan Fraser step out of their car and begin pulling on rain jackets and fastening nylon gaiters around their legs. They'll need both during the next eight hours as they carefully pick their way through the dripping dune grass, shrubs and trees of Wisconsin Point at the edge of Superior.

Belde and Fraser, both biology majors at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, are conducting a survey of invasive plants on Wisconsin Point. They're gaining practical experience in science while accumulating information that city and state planners can use when they create a management plan for the 200-acre stretch of beach, dunes and forest that separates Superior Bay from Lake Superior.

"It's supposed to be 85 degrees and sunny this afternoon," Belde says hopefully as he gathers his equipment. A few minutes later the drizzle increases to a steady rain.

Finding the invaders

Both men keep working. At each designated survey spot, they randomly toss a hollow plastic square called a quadrate onto the ground and then carefully analyze the plants within the one-meter square. They identify, count and record all invasive plants - those species not native to the dry, sandy environment of a Lake Superior dune.

"We're learning taxonomy (scientific identification) skills, and being in the field is great experience," Belde says. "We're learning about invasive species, which is good because there is a lot of interest in invasive species now."

"UW-Superior is a great school for doing this kind of research and for working closely with professors," he adds. "There are definitely opportunities available."

See how Fox 21 News reported the story

Research and community service

Belde, a senior from Monticello, Minn., and Fraser, a senior from Duluth, are working as "stewardship liaisons" 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.

Helping the Great Lakes

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.

"I want them to learn something about plant distribution and about the problem of invasive plants," Danz says. "I want them to learn how as scientists we can help Great Lakes stewardship and assist in management."

Gaining research experience

For Belde and Fraser, the GLISTEN grant provides an opportunity to gain experience in botany research and use it to fulfill their requirement for a senior year experience project and presentation. They also are giving back to the community by completing a survey that may benefit efforts to maintain and improve the valued lands of Wisconsin Point.

Belde and Fraser began their work last spring in the lab, where they created a computerized map and designated 450 points at which to sample plant life. The task required both students to use skills they acquired from their minor in geographic information systems, an advanced computer-based technology and methodology for collecting, managing, analyzing and modeling diverse types of data.

The pair began their field work in July. From the edge of the old city landfill to the Superior Entry ship canal, they use a Global Positioning System device to locate and survey each sample point.

Native plants could offer solution

"We're identifying native and invasive plants," Fraser says as he examines a survey point. "We're also noting which native plants grow well in certain areas." That information, he adds, could be helpful for future efforts to replace invasive plants with native species.

Belde and Fraser both are focusing their studies on plant sciences. They call on their botany skills to identify about 40 invasive species, including spotted knapweed, tansy, buckthorn and honeysuckle.

So far, they've observed that the "fore dune" -- the sandy mounds near the beach that are covered with loose grasses - are largely free of invasive species. But they are finding many invasive plants in "disturbed" areas where human activity has provided a foothold, such as along the road and next to parking areas.

Long days in the field

The students, who both work full time at other jobs, generally spend three eight-hour days a week on field work. Danz trained them and acts as their adviser, but Belde and Fraser plan and conduct their own work.

"Nick wants us to solve the problems," Fraser says.

After graduating, Belde and Fraser both hope to find jobs in some sort of "ecology-based work." For both, "This kind of on-the-job training is priceless," Fraser says.

City of Superior to receive data

When they've finished collecting data this fall, they will use their GIS skills to add the information to their computerized map so users can determine the types and numbers of plants found a each survey point. They plan to pass their survey along to city officials in hopes it can be used to improve Wisconsin Point in the future.

"We'll give them information on invasive species in the area," Belde says, "and after we know what's in the area, (information) on how to treat it."  

News Contact: Al Miller | amiller{atuws}
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