Getting Muddy for the Sake of Science
Getting Muddy for the Sake of Science

Jenn Rinehart

The hallmark of the industrious environmental science student is the muddy boot. We wouldn't expect chemistry students to comprehend reactivity without a balance or beakers. We couldn't help art students understand the power of color without a palette and paints. For environmental science students to understand complex, interconnected ecosystems, they need to get a little dirt under their nails and some grass stains on their knees. They need fields to forage for biodiversity, streams to ford for flow velocities, and soils of all types to connect the dots between land use and soil chemistry. To become ecoliterate, students must learn to bridge the gaps between natural and human-influenced systems.

At Hotchkiss, students have at their doorstep a myriad of environmental laboratories, from Fairfield Farm to our biomass facility, from Lake Wononscopomuc to the Beeslick Woods. For environmental science students in particular, the Larsen Trail becomes far more than a great afternoon hike or a scenic cross-country run. The trailheads are the doorways to outdoor lecture halls. The bridges become lab benches for stream studies. And these beautiful paths lead us to the place where learning begins — the question.

How do soil chemistry and the slope of the land affect timber growth? We use the trails to delineate sampling areas of different slopes where we test soil acidity and measure forest density. What can we learn about the effect of mowing on species diversity? We follow the paths to the sports fields, where we collect data on rodent diversity and grass heights. How do long-term weather and daylight patterns affect plant and animal diversity? Following trail maps, students choose a specific site to revisit throughout the year, logging changes in plant diversity and bud formations. By exploring these questions, students develop a deeper understanding of the larger patterns in the living and nonliving variables that surround them.

This year, each environmental student "adopted" a site in Beeslick Woods. Students visited their sites for an hour each month, even in the snow. The purpose of the project was at once simple and profound. The most obvious goal was to experience the seasonal changes at their site; each student collected data and journaled during site visits. They used the skills they practiced in the lab to further their description of their site. As the year came to a close, the students were asked to derive one research question about their site, design an experiment to explore this question, and capture data in the field to seek an answer.

Their questions varied: How does sunlight infiltration affect budding in Norway maples? What was the condition of the Beeslick stream after construction of the Larsen Trail? How does time of day affect call frequency of birds? Has the development of the Trail system affected mammal densities or distributions?

All of the data they have collected, both from their journals and final experiments, will become part of a long-term ecological monitoring program for the Hotchkiss community. Another component of the project is the development of interactive kiosks along the Larsen Trail. By next fall, visitors walking the trails will discover a series of permanent signs that describe the ecology and land use along major sections of Beeslick Woods. By taking a picture with their smartphone of the QR code printed on the kiosk or visiting the website posted on the kiosk, visitors will be able to access the work of students: their journals, pictures through the seasons, data collected, even recorded bird songs. And each year, as we continue to involve new students in the long-term study, the archives will create a richer experience for both students and hikers.

There are also many opportunities for extracurricular research that can connect our student scientists to professional scientists around the world. The monitoring work students complete will become a springboard for partnerships with agencies like the Audubon Society, Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and NASA. Students motivated to explore even more deeply can also invest their time in advanced research classes. This spring, Instructor in Biology and Environmental Science Chris Oostenink and a team of students began a study to compare the carbon concentrations in farmed and forested soils. Their work could expand the global understanding of the role of land use in atmospheric carbon sequestration, helping scientists create efficient systems for reducing greenhouse gases.

Next year, my Woods Squad students will begin to explore the relationships between alternative agriculture and agroforestry systems and soil mycology. This initial work could lead to the development of fungal prototypes that act as phosphorous "sponges" in the soil. Their work could help farmers like Fairfield Farm Manager Ellie Youngblood '10 maximize the benefits of organic fertilizers while decreasing phosphorus runoff into our watersheds. This shift could decrease harmful algal blooms in waterways from the Hudson to the Chesapeake to as far away as Bangladesh. In this way, the Larsen trail becomes a conduit to global learning about environmental responsibility.

As they explore the Larsen Trail, students build deeper problem-solving skills and practice the link between practical learning and decision-making. In the future, these students will become the voters and citizens who will decide how we manage and sustain our Earth's resources. There is no better way to encourage responsible thinking and doing than by having students sink their boots into the mud in our own backyard.

The Larsen Perimeter Trail, completed last fall, was made possible through the generosity of the Larsen family: Chris '55, his brother Jon '57, and Chris's sons, Mark '82 and Chad '88. The year-long project involved constructing new trails and rehabilitating old ones to make a seven-mile loop that connects the main campus, Fairfield Farm, the Hotchkiss Woods, Long Pond, and Lake Wononscopomuc.

This story appeared in the summer 2016 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.