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York College introduces Ecological Action Course

image of creek in fall

York College is known for its project-based learning and community service. The new Ecological Action course taught by Professors Bridgette Hagerty and Jessica Nolan, first offered in spring 2020, provided Biology students with a remarkable opportunity to expand their knowledge. “We were very excited for students to learn how conservationists approach an ecological problem,” Nolan says, “Tyler Run is such a part of York College’s identity.” 

Setting goals

Students were keen to get involved and set the following goals during the first week: 1) Investigate and describe the relationship between Tyler Run Creek, York College, and the surrounding community in a historical context. 2) Assess the abiotic and biotic characteristics of Tyler Run to describe the current conditions. 3) Evaluate restoration techniques and recommend short- and long-term actions to improve stream functions, taking into consideration financial constraints, and 4) Communicate findings and recommendations to stakeholders.

“As an urban stream,” Hagerty says, “we anecdotally knew that Tyler Run potentially was not functioning as a typical natural stream does. This course offered us the opportunity to learn more about the creek in a meaningful way.” Students also began to reach out to stakeholders and met with Dr. Ken Martin as a representative of the College administration and Dr. Jennifer Pomeroy, Chair of the President’s Sustainability Task Force. 

Starting with history

The class dug into the College archives and the scientific literature on streams to begin to understand the history of Tyler Run. Students started to collect data by completing what is known as a rapid stream assessment—which gives a snapshot of a stream’s condition by thinking about impairments caused by humans. They quickly recognized that Tyler Run has many characteristics of an impaired urban stream. They identified the types of data that they could collect to get a more detailed view of the stream.

Then COVID-19 caused the campus to shut down, which altered the class’s plan dramatically. Students continued to work as a team using Google docs and Zoom, but were unable to fulfill their initial goals. Senior Erika Scheppelmann says, “Ecological Action was different than what I had initially imagined; however, it was still a fun class and well worth the experience gained.” Hagerty and Nolan were extremely impressed with the students who developed a sincere stewardship ethic for the creek.

When the class had to quickly switch to an on-line format, students “demonstrated true resilience,” Hagerty says, “and began to gather information on stream restoration. Using available information, they developed a one-year, low-cost restoration plan to make specific improvements to the land surrounding the creek, known as the riparian buffer, and the riprap that currently lines the stream.”

Collaboration

As a result of the changes to the course from COVID-19, the restoration plan written by the students was not what they originally set out to complete. Hagerty and Nolan are extremely proud of their students’ work and are now working with other faculty in an interdisciplinary effort to learn as much as they can about the stream. Other courses that have also been investigating topics related to Tyler Run are Environmental Sociology, Advanced Water Resources Engineering, and Advanced GIS. 

“We are excited about the possibilities as more faculty and students work collaboratively to see the creek through the lens of different disciplines” Hagerty says, “Our next step is to collect the baseline data that we planned to collect in spring 2020.”

Hagerty and Nolan say Ecological Action will be offered again in spring 2022, and they will be involving research students in the project in the coming semesters. “Our hope is that we can keep up momentum and involve more faculty and students in our efforts to raise awareness about Tyler Run.”

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