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First BEES Class: A Success from Day One

January 4, 2013 — This September, environmental science students hit the ground running in Drexel’s new Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES). Located in the College of Arts and Sciences, the new department brings together Drexel’s headline-making environmental science faculty with the impressive researchers of the Academy of Natural Sciences. Dr. Jerry Mead is an assistant scientist and section leader of the Watershed and Systems Ecology Section of the Academy—and an assistant research professor in the new BEES department. Below, Mead shares the excitement of introducing students to the diverse possibilities of the field.

Dr. Jerry Mead, on right, and several environmental science students have fun pulling their classmate out of the mud. Students were examining plant communities along a gradient of elevation or frequency of wetting in the tidal, freshwater marsh.

Dr. Jerry Mead, on right, and several environmental science students have fun pulling their classmate out of the mud. Students were examining plant communities along a gradient of elevation or frequency of wetting in the tidal, freshwater marsh.

One of the most difficult things in life is to identify your calling, place, or future career. It could be anything: doctor or lawyer, stay-at-home dad or mom, truck driver, or even the President of the United States. Finding this place can be difficult, but it is well worth the search. My first Drexel class, ENVS 101: Introduction to Environmental Science, is for students who are just starting the journey, who believe they want to become environmental scientists, but who aren’t yet sure what that might mean.

Students in ENVS 101 started with an introduction to the basics of environmental science research, including hands-on lessons in the many sampling devices used in the field—everything from surveying equipment to the large hoop nets used to catch fish and turtles. Students also learned the basics of recording their data in field notebooks and protecting the delicate monitoring equipment used to survey and evaluate water quality.

Bees student Raffaela Marano takes notes in Tinicum marsh. Students were examining plant communities along a gradient of elevation or frequency of wetting in the tidal, freshwater marsh.

BEES student Raffaela Marano takes notes in Tinicum marsh. Students were examining plant communities along a gradient of elevation or frequency of wetting in the tidal, freshwater marsh.

In the following months, our class geared up for the field every Thursday and Friday (in the spirit of the BEES motto “Experiential Learning, Early and Often”). Along the way, they established what will surely be long-lasting friendships and experienced the many joys (and dirty clothes) of being an environmental scientist. Before each trip, I lectured about the goals of our upcoming field experience and its larger importance to environmental science. Students would tumble off the bus, break into teams of three or four, get their gear and dive in—and they were great at that. One of my biggest jobs was making sure they completed each activity on time; they were just having so much fun in the field.

These trips required a lot of preparation, but Teaching Assistant Kevin Smith and BEES Operations Manager Roger Thomas put everything into motion. I often called upon additional expertise from colleagues at the Academy, like Dr. Tracy Quirk, who helped with marsh ecology trips, and Dr. Richard Horwitz, Paul Overbeck and David Keller, who assisted with fish collection and identification. Frank Anderson from my staff was also happy to help us with the stream ecology field trip. 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.

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.

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.

The students in this first class of the new BEES department were a joy to teach. I can see the power and place for this program at Drexel, particularly after witnessing the impact of experiential learning on the success of our majors thus far. My hope is that many of these students will hear a calling for environmental science and decide early on to make it the focus of their college careers. I believe that passion and purpose go hand-in-hand and can transform any student into a deeply engaged scholar.

BEES Teaching Assistant Kevin Smith said recently, “I cannot wait to see how well these students perform on their co-op. Often they come into field work inexperienced, but these students will be ready to go from day one.” And that is what we want for all of our students in the environmental science program at Drexel; the knowledge and experience to succeed from day one.

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