When the classroom expands to the outdoors

By Karen Herland

Although this scene looks inviting, the task of cataloguing each plant from ground to sky is more than a little daunting. Magnifying glass

Although this scene looks inviting, the task of cataloguing each plant from ground to sky is more than a little daunting.

The end of August is often spent soaking up the last few days of sun at the cottage, taking a dip in the lake and enjoying the rustle of wind in the leaves.

Students in BIOL 451 get the sun, lake and the leaves, but their pace is a little more frenetic as they cram a full plant ecology course into two weeks at the Vanier College field station near Lachute.

Paul Widden has been teaching the course for almost three decades. “The only way to really appreciate the plant community is to immerse yourself in it. Not just visit it in the day and then go home at night.”

Students combine nightly lectures with days spent in the bush about a half-hour’s hike from the field station.

Students are responsible for describing a slice of forest, a task complicated by rock faces, raspberry brambles and steep slopes of the forest floor. Widden sees the sometimes difficult terrain as part and parcel of the field experience.

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“This way, when you’re asked to do this kind of work, you’ll know what to expect.” The hands-on opportunity attracts geography students, as well as those studying biology and ecology.

Each year, up to 16 students register to track the plant life on a plot of land. To do so, they are equipped with an operational definition of a tree (two cm. in diameter), basic instructions on how to differentiate between tree species, and tools to keep track of what they find.

The evening lectures provide clues on how to tell a basswood from an elm or a fir tree from a spruce. They are expected to use the Latin names, since a “lime tree” in the U.K. bears no resemblance to the tree given that name in North America.

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The more attention students pay to whether leaves’ edges are serrated or smooth and if their veins cut to the ends of the leaves or curve up to the point, not to mention variations in shape, growth patterns and bark texture, the more confusing it becomes. But soon they are able to tell one species from another and are collecting the data they will need to chart changes in the forest in “their” territory. The lectures expand to include more complicated methodological training.

Students share meal-planning and preparation duties in addition to their research.

Once they return to the city, the students have another four weeks to write five scientific papers based on their data. Besides the data on their forest transect, students will also discuss a lawn-mapping project, forest diversity and how plant species adapt to their forest environments. Students will write about patterns they determine in how plants grow, and how that growth is affected by natural conditions like sun exposure due to the construction of roads or buildings.

“The land we use is municipally owned, so we have no control over tree-cutting or other changes,” Widden says.

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Natural phenomena like ice storms, beaver dams or insect infestations may have as profound an impact on the growth of a forest as human interference. “Everyone can see patterns, but the real trick is seeing if assumptions stand up to scientific scrutiny.”

Although fire, flood and ice dramatically change the scenery, Widden sees these as opportunities for forest renewal.


Concordia University