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Taking Summer School, Outside: Forest Ecology at the Rice Center

Forest.JPGForests cover two-thirds of Virginia’s land area and comprise an interacting complex of life that provides innumerable ecosystem goods and services, including water and air quality preservation, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, recreation and wood products. As an integral component of the Mid-Atlantic’s landscape, forests are often intimately intertwined with aquatic ecosystems, including the extensive network of rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. With the James River as a backdrop, these themes of forest goods and services, and land-water connectivity were a focus of a new Forest Ecology course (BIOL 491) taught entirely at the Rice Center by Chris Gough, Ph.D., of the VCU Biology Department. Sixteen undergraduate students participated during the first summer session in this field station-style course that met for six hours every day over a three-week period, with most of that time spent outdoors.

Students used the Rice Center as an outdoor laboratory, learning first-hand from the diverse array of forest ecosystems present on site. The first half of the course developed an ecological basis for sustainable forest management, offering a scientific understanding of what controls forest structure, distribution and growth. Students also learned the fundamentals of how to measure ecologically relevant characteristics of the Rice Center’s forests, including forest composition, age, fertility and biomass. “We were able to be hands-on, which helped a great amount with understanding the material”, one student commented.

The second half of the course examined forest conservation and sustainability in the face of global challenges such as climate change, forest fragmentation and deforestation. Throughout the course, students collected data in groups, functioning as collaborative research teams tasked with developing conservation-minded forest management plans. The course concluded with presentations by students that summarized their ecologically-based management plans for the Rice Center’s forests.

What did the students think about meeting every day for class at the Rice Center? As one student put it, “The Rice Center was the perfect place to hold this class; we were able to relate lectures directly with the environment right outside the door. The Rice Center is such a wonderful thing for students to take advantage of.” As Dr. Gough said, “I can’t think of a better location to teach VCU students the fundamentals of forest ecology and the importance of connectivity among land and water-based ecosystems. I’m already looking forward to summer school next year!”