A summer of ecological exploration

Sian M. Hunter
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Traditional academic calendars give teachers and students the summer off to unwind, but you wouldn't know that from the learning that took place on our campus. Each summer, the Cary Institute hosts programs for school-age children, undergraduates, and secondary-school teachers. This year, hundreds of people took advantage of our offerings to learn more about ecology.

The annual summer migration of undergraduates occurred, with college students joining Cary's research community via the long-running Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. This year's students hailed from as far away as Arizona State University, the University of Minnesota, and the Universidad Metropolitana in Puerto Rico. Projects tackled topics from the behavioral ecology of songbirds to explorations of an introduced pest on hemlock trees. Their research was conducted under the mentorship of a Cary Institute scientist and presented at our 25th REU Symposium.

Sold-out Ecology Day Camps immersed students in grades 2-7 in freshwater exploration. Week-long sessions, coordinated by educator Jen Rubbo, had campers conducting field experiments using insect traps and seine nets. The goal: to reveal how pond food webs influence inhabitants. "Fowler Pond has fish, whereas Skeeter Pond does not, so campers were able to learn about predator effects on ecosystems," noted Rubbo.

Campers also conducted experiments in artificial study ponds, isolating how factors such as fish, tadpoles, and algae, influenced the ecosystems. Rubbo commented, "Campers began to realize that if fish eat all the tadpoles, then algae which the tadpoles eat, grows freely. Seeing and accounting for those differences strengthens their understanding of the aquatic food web."
In addition to more than 100 campers, 12 junior counselors participated in our camp program. This year, Rubbo and her colleagues also introduced a new two-week session geared toward 8th-9th graders, with plans to offer this longer camp regularly in summers hereafter.

For teachers, four major workshops were offered. Thirty elementary and high-school teachers attended multi-day workshops at the Cary Institute, and 25 participants met in Baltimore for the Environmental Science Literacy Progression, a year-long fellowship program.

Educator Cornelia Harris and colleagues also hosted a summer workshop on hydrofracking. Fourteen teachers from across the state participated as part of a year-long fellowship funded by the National Science Foundation. Teachers explored current science on hydrofracking, gaps in our understanding, and viewpoints they encounter in their classrooms, such as families who seek the financial benefits of leasing land to gas companies.

"The entire Cary Institute community is involved in supporting education activities, allowing learning to take place alongside our experts—whether you are 7 or 57," comments Harris. "The passion and excitement that Cary Institute scientists and staff exude for ecology is clear to all the participants who join us in the summers, and we are proud of the way we are able to make cutting-edge science available to a wide range of visitors."

Summer Ecology Campers conducting field experiments
Students participating in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program
Teachers at Cary's 2012 Summer Institute learning how to explore ecosystems using the Hudson River as a model

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