Wildlife Conservation Students Take on Real-world Projects

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At the top of Buffalo Mountain outside Floyd, Virginia, a team of Virginia Tech wildlife conservation students uses drones to map and monitor erosion impacts on the habitat of a rare insect.

In Buchanan County, another team works with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to monitor and study GPS data for the state’s wild elk population.

Just west of the Virginia Tech campus, a third team surveys invertebrates to make determinations about the ecological health of Stroubles Creek.

These are samples of the work students do for their capstone class, a conservation biology course in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation that asks seniors to synthesize what they’ve learned during their college career and apply that learning to real-time field projects.

The project-oriented focus is the brainchild of Sarah Karpanty, professor of wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, who took over the course in 2014.

“It used to be a more traditional lecture-based course,” Karpanty explained. “We realized that the students felt — rightfully — that it wasn’t really functioning as a capstone of their studies. Now it is completely project-based from day one. We put a lot of emphasis on final career preparation and try to design projects and partnerships with agencies so that students are carrying to completion a project in a tightly packed 15 weeks.”

Courtney Linkous, a member of the Buffalo Mountain team, said that the effort to align projects with a student’s area of interest has been invaluable. “Dr. Karpanty works very hard to ensure that all of her students find a career-oriented project that fits their interests and helps them decide what they want to do in the future. She takes a lot of time to work with each group, going out to projects with us.”

A student team distilled three months of live elk video into an educational highlight reel for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries elk restoration program website. Two other teams examined GPS collar data to explore elk habitat use. Photo courtesy of VDGIF.

Erin Saylor, whose team researched elk habitat availability, said that the capstone experience echoes the careers wildlife conservationists will pursue. “What I appreciate about the capstone class is how it mimics a work setting, where you have projects thrown at you. You’re given resources and a task to take on, but you have to figure it out for yourself.”

Karpanty said that the emphasis on experiential learning is particularly valuable for students entering the workforce in the age of smartphones and other digital technologies.

“For this generation of students, accessing knowledge isn’t a limiting factor,” she said. “We have knowledge at our fingertips all the time. What this course offers is the chance to organize, synthesize, and apply that knowledge. The experience students have is what they will be doing throughout their careers: taking a base of information and applying it to real-world problems. That’s what we’re trying to replicate in this course.”

For Karpanty, the course gives her a chance to work with students in the field and cultivate partnerships with colleagues and employers near Virginia Tech.

“A lot of my research is on the U.S. Atlantic coast and in Madagascar, so I don’t get many students to come out there,” she explained. “What’s exciting about the capstone course is that it gives me the chance to work in the field with these students and develop partnerships with organizations in Southwest Virginia. I feel like the students are making a tangible impact on this region of Virginia, and I really appreciate the opportunity to work with them on local projects.”

Karpanty’s spring 2019 class included a wide range of projects with the following organizations:

  • The Nature Conservancy of Virginia: Students developed physical and digital signage, an audio tour, and an interview of experts related to the unique natural resources at Falls Ridge Preserve near Elliston.
  • Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ elk restoration program: Teams used more than two years of GPS collar data on elk to explore what habitats both bull and cow elk use, especially during mating and calving seasons, and worked with VDGIF to distill three months of live elk video into a variety of narrated highlight reel clips that will be posted on their website to educate the public.
  • Virginia Natural Heritage Program in Floyd County: Teams used a drone to map, classify, and monitor erosion and vegetation impacts of human users on top of the Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve, and developed an upland shrub restoration plan at Camp Branch Wetlands Natural Area Preserve, home to an imperiled bog turtle, among other unique species.
  • Cricket Hill Farm in Craig County: Teams worked on wildlife habitat improvements on Professor Emeritus Brian Murphy’s 67-acre property to benefit white-tailed deer, gamebirds (turkey, quail, grouse, woodcock), the loggerhead shrike (a carnivorous bird that requires a specific habitat), and owls. They also surveyed owls on the property and worked with another landowner nearby to expand the owl project.
  • Roanoke Parks and Recreation: Students surveyed mammals, reptiles, and amphibians on Mill Mountain; their work will feed into updates to the Mill Mountain Management Plan.
  • Stroubles Creek Coalition: Students planted trees in two areas, surveyed invertebrates as indicators of stream quality, and planned wildflower restoration areas along the stream, which runs through the Virginia Tech campus.

Joel Snodgrass, head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, added, “Dr. Karpanty’s capstone course teaches the critical skills of working within a team setting and is truly a service-learning experience. The students are afforded an opportunity to work on projects where the results are made available to groups external to the university. The students really appreciate the active learning environment and being able to give back to the community.”

David Fleming