Students' high-level conservation research aids public reporting

Senior and graduate students in Professor John Baker’s “Small-Scale Land Conservation Principles” course have been engaging in some grand-scale experiential learning this fall, conducting field work at several conservation sites in Petersham, Massachusetts, as they work to produce two public conservation documents to be submitted for approval by the state.

Baker, research associate professor of biology and co-director of Clark’s environmental science program, has organized field trips to several sites in Petersham, including the Mary & St. Scholastica Monastery, home to a contemplative order of monks who last year sold a conservation restriction (a legally enforceable land preservation agreement) to the Town of Petersham. This restriction allows the monastery to protect about 150 out of 180 acres of their forested land, which provided plenty of ground for Baker’s students to cover as they led short excursions and talks, and documented relevant findings at the different sites. Details indicating whether the land is being maintained and how or why it is changing will be compiled to create a legally required maintenance report that which is must be drawn up within a year after a piece of land is first conserved.

Following a day of field research in early October, the students gathered for a group picnic hosted by Baker and his wife, Professor Susan Foster, chair of the biology department, at their home, also in Petersham.

“Visiting the conservation sites really got me thinking about what it actually takes to get a plot of land preserved - not only the legality of it, but the practical issues such as how you measure if a plot of land is changing and by how much,” said Dina Navon, a sophomore and “outsider” who accompanied Professor Baker's class and plans to work on stickleback research in the Foster/Baker Lab in the spring.

* Watch a video: Professors John Baker and John Rogan talk about the importance of undergraduate research at Clark. *

Navon was enthusiastic about the social aspects of this gathering of scientists. “The dinner Professor Foster cooked was excellent,” she continued. “She and Professor Baker grow more vegetables in their own garden than I even knew existed. It was surreal to be sitting in this old, gorgeous, restored kitchen with a teacher who has quickly become one of my biggest inspirations at Clark - chiding me to call her by her first name and teaching me the proper way to peel beets! It was just an amazing trip, and it really inspired me to try to get more involved both with conservation efforts in Massachusetts and the lab here at Clark.”

Katherine Minnix, a senior who, like most of Baker’s students, has made several field trips to the Petersham properties, added: “I really enjoyed the experience. I learned a great deal about land conservation through the process and have made a worthwhile contribution to the Town of Petersham in the process.

“The dinner at Professors Baker and Foster's was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed meeting new faculty members and prospective environmental science students as well as getting to know everyone else a little better.”

In addition to their work at the monastery, Baker’s students are assisting the East Quabbin Land Trust with producing the formal baseline document for a second area of unprotected land, this one a working farm. Using carefully taken GPS coordinates, field notes, and photos, their report will document the status of the land at the time it is to be conserved.

Both documents will be completed by the end of the semester, and formally presented to the Conservation Commission in Petersham for review, followed by submission to the state office.

“Small-Scale Land Conservation Principles” is a higher level research course that is offered via permission only to competitive senior and graduate biology and environmental science majors and is intended to provide an overview of land conservation methods employed at the smallest (local) scales. The course introduces students to the general process of small-scale conservation work, including: how a specific area is selected for conservation; what formal mechanisms are involved; what documents are produced; and what happens after the land is formally protected.

Ten students were selected for this fall research project: Shannon Choquette ’12 , Katie Friedman ’12 , Shannon O’Neil ’11, Mike Keveny ’13, Katie Minnix ’12, Josh Bruckner ’11, Salvatore DeCarli (MA/ES&P) ’12, Jeremy Gerber ’12, Noah Callahan ’13 and Heather MacKenzie ’12.

The Foster/Baker Lab at Clark’s Lasry Center for Bioscience researches evolutionary development by looking at diversity amongst the stickleback fish. This work includes both laboratory rearing studies and field study in Alaska and Canada.

Since its founding in 1887, Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has a history of challenging convention. As an innovative liberal arts college and research university, Clark’s world-class faculty leads a community of creative thinkers and passionate doers and offers a range of expertise. Clark is nationally recognized in the areas of psychology, geography, management, urban education, Holocaust and genocide studies, environmental studies, and international development and social change. Clark’s students, faculty and alumni embody the Clark motto: Challenge convention. Change our world.