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Improving lab courses...in the field

Field study in living lab enriches course

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- For three Princeton students who spent June and July collecting ecological data at a lake near campus, their summer jobs hardly felt like work.

“We got to go out on the lake every day and have the kayak as our office,” said junior Jennifer Austin, whose daily tools included both sophisticated scientific equipment and sunscreen.

instructor and senior in a canoe

Eileen Zerba (left), lab instructor at the Princeton Environmental Institute, worked with senior Sarah Barbrow to sample the abundance and diversity of microorganisms in a lake at the Plainsboro Preserve near campus. The research is part of an effort to expand the opportunities for field study in a popular sophomore lab course for both scientists and non-scientists.

More than just fun, however, the students’ research is part of an ambitious program to improve lab courses for future generations of Princeton students, help a community organization manage and preserve local habitats, and advance the scientific understanding of lake ecology. At the same time, the students have had a rapid introduction to the excitement and challenges of designing their own research projects.

The students — Austin, senior Sarah Barbrow and sophomore Dan Box — conducted their research at Lake McCormack in the Plainsboro Preserve, a 631-acre parcel of undeveloped land about four miles east of campus. Working on foot and in kayaks, they mapped the depth, temperature, and level of dissolved oxygen and many other chemical characteristics of the lake and the surrounding ecosystems.

“The big questions are: How does environmental change, particularly urbanization and agriculture, affect the health of aquatic ecosystems?” said Eileen Zerba, lab instructor at the Princeton Environmental Institute. “And how might these changes affect environmental policy? Most importantly, what can we do to preserve the lake?”

These are all questions that Zerba wants students to address in a hands-on way during her fall and spring labs that accompany the sophomore-level course “Fundamentals of Environmental Studies.” Zerba, working with Lars Hedin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, received funding from the University’s Council on Science and Technology and Sophomore Initiative to greatly expand the opportunities for field research at the Plainsboro Preserve. The lab course, which attracts undergraduates with science and non-science backgrounds, enrolls 64 students each semester.

“I like for my class to be able to use real data and participate in real science,” said Zerba. The summer work by Austin, Barbrow and Box advanced that goal by establishing a baseline database that future students can add to and use for comparisons.

The same data also are valuable to the New Jersey Audubon Society, which manages the preserve and conducts science lessons for visiting school children. “They are doing everything I would love to do and have no time to do at all,” said Tara Miller, the preserve’s program director. Miller said the data would allow her to give more substantive information and design more meaningful activities for the more than 5,000 school children who visit the preserve each year.

Brian Vernachio, the preserve’s sanctuary director, said the Princeton research will help complete a management plan for the two-and-a-half-year-old preserve, which is challenged to maintain a delicate ecosystem in a densely populated and still-growing region. “The baseline data will then help us monitor the plan during the year,” Vernachio said. “It’s a great collaboration.”

At the same time, the studies are addressing both theoretical and practical questions that are of broad interest among ecologists. A key aspect of the summer research and the work in Zerba’s lab course is that it includes more than traditional lab exercises and focuses on current ecological research.

Barbrow’s research, for example, is forming the basis of her senior thesis, which is testing a theory, recently proposed in the scientific literature, about differences between food chains at the center and edges of lakes.

While Barbrow is majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, Austin is majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Box also hopes to concentrate in the Woodrow Wilson School when he declares a major at the end of this school year.

In their proposal to receive funding from the Sophomore Initiative, Zerba and Hedin wrote that “leadership in solving our most urgent and vexing problems — global climate change, water and air pollution, human population growth, species extinction, and governance of global energy and food systems — demands that the next generation of leaders recognize the interdisciplinary dimensions of these problems, and how to lead multi-disciplinary groups to link science and policy into viable solutions.”

For the students, teamwork was a critical part of the summer. The three often traded ideas as they all tried to make sensitive equipment work under field conditions. “That helped us design our own experiments and put together — tape together — our own equipment,” Austin said.

Box said the unscripted nature of the work — with temperamental equipment, variable weather and experimental procedures largely of their own design — was a valuable switch from conventional lab courses. “I like the way that every day you come out here to the lake it’s different,” he said. “Sometimes the data is what you expect and sometimes it’s totally different.”

The students also valued simply spending an extended period of time in a natural environment. “Dan would radio over and say ‘I see two beavers!’ and we’d get all excited and go watch them,” said Barbrow. “When you’re out on the lake all day, you see a lot of details. You learn how to look at nature and just observe.”