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Environmental Science 101, Day 1: Get Stuck In Mud

Students perform field research in a muddy marsh.
BEES students up to their elbows in mud (with soil core). This marsh team was using a quadrat to estimate plant densities, coring soils, and measuring water levels over time in the Tinicum marsh.

Remember when intro courses meant big lecture halls and sweeping overviews of everything there is to know about a discipline?

Not this time. Environmental Science 101 at Drexel began in the mud.

Freshmen majoring in environmental science at Drexel this academic year are the first to experience a curriculum that was totally revamped after the formation of a unique affiliation between Drexel and the Academy of Natural Sciences – the nation’s oldest natural history museum, home to a tremendous resource of natural history collections, and a leading institution for scientific research and education.

Dr. Jerry Mead, an Academy watershed ecologist (and now a faculty member in Drexel’s new BEES department) taught the first semester intro class this fall. In keeping with the program’s motto of “Field Experience, Early and Often,” the course began with a multi-day pre-orientation trip to the Barnegat Bay field station, and continued with weekly field experiences on Thursdays and Fridays throughout the fall term.

Mead recently looked back on these first ten weeks (He packed a lot into a short academic term at Drexel!):

We splashed into Darby Creek sampling algae, macroinvertebrates and fish, and then used measurements of the physical and chemical conditions of the sites to understand how and why certain aquatic life lived in particular habitats within the stream. This concept of the distribution of organisms along environmental gradients (e.g., low to high intensities of light in the forest and differences in stream/lake depth, temperature, or dissolved oxygen) was one of the overarching themes in the course and was emphasized in almost every lab.

Some of our other field excursions brought us out to places like Tinicum marsh near the airport, where we cored soils and measured vegetation; Edgewood Lake in FDR Park, where we collected fish from a electro-fishing boat to examine the impact of the invasive Northern Snakehead fish on the ecosystem; and into the forest to sample soils and measure the rate of water infiltrating the ground to assess storm water control in cities.

That’s the kind of intro survey course I wish I’d taken!

What’s next for the freshmen in Environmental Science, now that the weather has turned cold? ENVS 102 will have a lot less mud and (probably) a little more dust. Beginning later this week, students will go inside the museum to focus on natural history collections and research, with an in-depth look at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. As far as I’m aware, there is no other undergraduate program that offers this level of access and educational focus on a world-class natural history museum. Weekly seminars and tours will focus on topics including ichthyology, vertebrate paleontology, ornithology, botany, archives and more — all led by the scientists and collections managers who specialize in those areas.

I hope to find a student (or a few) who will share their learning experiences here on this blog. You’ll see the results here if I do.

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