Students Interact with Endangered Wildlife in New Century College Class

Posted: May 20, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

While many college students were off enjoying leisure and sunshine during spring break, 21 George Mason graduate and undergraduate students spent the week at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC) in Front Royal, Va., learning what it takes to save an endangered species.

The students were participants in Conserving Endangered Species: An Integrative Approach, a New Century College (NCC) course offered this spring and team taught by Mason faculty members Tom Wood and Andrew Wingfield and CRC researcher Katherine Christen. Students were able to live and study at CRC, one of the world’s premier endangered species research facilities, where they could try out a number of laboratory and field techniques. Several CRC researchers lent their expertise and taught units during the weeklong course.

Using hands-on, problem-driven modules, students focused on the conservation of the Eld’s deer (Cervis eldi) of Southeast Asia, working alongside the researchers who do this for a living. About the size of the white-tailed deer that are so populous in Virginia, Eld’s deer have reddish brown coats and lyre-shaped antlers. A national study in 1998 estimated that fewer than 1,200 deer remained in Myanmar (formerly Burma). About 50 Eld’s deer live at the CRC’s 3,100-acre Virginia facility.

“In the course, we want students to focus on different aspects of the same problem,” says Wood. “This approach provides them with a more holistic look. We also want them to see the value of the group process–no one has ever implemented a conservation program solo.”

Wood is the impetus behind Mason’s partnership with CRC. As a graduate student at Mason, he spent several years working at the center and knows the grounds and facilities better than anyone. His ultimate goal is to have a George Mason House “on center,” as they call it, where graduate students would live while working there. Currently, a number of researchers live in small houses on center, and a few graduate students from George Mason’s Environmental Science and Policy program work there.

Students taking a New Century College course on endangered species tackled field work during spring break.

During the spring break week, wildlife biologist and CRC researcher Bill McShea led the students through field work for his unit on Large Mammal Census and Survey Techniques. Students trapped a native white-tailed deer and put a radio collar on it so they could track its movements. Then they were dropped off at various points throughout the center to conduct a field survey of the white-tailed deer population.

Students were organized into groups, with one person to follow the trail, one to count their paces as a measure of distance, and the third to count deer. Wood and Wingfield drove back and forth across the facility in a van picking up the groups as they emerged from the woods. According to the students’ reports, snowfall made walking difficult and everyone had trouble staying with his or her specific tasks. Some groups didn’t see any deer; one group maintained they saw the same deer, one with a slight limp, over and over again.

“Then your data are bad,” McShea told them when they reconvened in their makeshift classroom/computer lab/dining hall. They could only count the lame deer once. McShea wanted them to understand how difficult it is to collect good data. If it were not an exercise, they would need to go back and get more data.

Then McShea helped the groups enter data into a computer model that could help extrapolate the total number of deer. After lunch, the group joined Peter Leimgruber, a CRC researcher, for a crash course in map making and reading.

“All maps are a lie,” Leimgruber told the group. When looking at a map, he urged them to think about two things: “what do you know about this map and what information is not included. Sometimes what is more interesting is what is not on the map.”

The students also learned about MMUs (minimum mapping units), DEMs (digital elevation models), and “bleeding polygons.” GIS and remote sensing–mapping using imagery acquired either from aircraft or satellite–have become important tools in the management of natural resources. The students were set in front of computers and immersed in ArcView mapmaking software. Lab assistants helped students see how data, such as those they collected in the morning, could be translated into visual formats.

In other units, the group got an overview of cryopreservation methods and discussed the conservation history, politics, and culture in Myanmar, particularly as they relate to the Eld’s deer population. The course gave students the opportunity to not only gain insight into the natural science perspective, which usually is the only viewpoint presented in conservation courses, but also to view the problem from a humanities and social science perspective. At the end of the week, the students presented a Population Habitat Viability Analysis (PHVA), offering their insights into the conservation of the Eld’s deer.

“You can talk to students all you want about the complexity of conservation work and the need for interdisciplinary approaches to saving endangered species,” says Wingfield. “But in a course like this, students experience the complexity and the rewards of integrative work firsthand, which is so much more effective. New Century College’s motto is ‘connecting the classroom with the world.’ Our partnership with CRC helps students make this connection. This is a powerful learning environment.”

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