Field study in living lab enriches course

Aug. 23, 2004 10:05 a.m.

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 Jennifer Austin, a junior this fall, whose daily tools included both sophisticated scientific equipment and sunscreen.

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?"

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Contact: Eric Quinones (609) 258-3601