Outdoor learning: Rice and Cook's Branch form collaboration

HOUSTON—Cook's Branch Conservancy doesn't look like a classroom, but that's just what the 5,600-acre nature preserve in Texas’ Montgomery County became for a group of Rice University students studying insect biology.

"Many of our labs feature an outdoor field experience, which is particularly important for students who are studying ecology and evolutionary biology," said Scott Solomon, professor in the practice of ecology and evolutionary biology in Rice's Department of BioSciences. "We're trying to teach the students to be naturalists, to go out into nature and really observe it, in a way they probably never have before."

Earlier this month, four students from Solomon's insect biology laboratory course EBIO 330 made the 90-minute drive to Cook's Branch to collect insects. The insect collection represents a major component of the class, but it's also part of an ongoing effort to measure and catalog restoration efforts at the conservancy.

"We're really proud of this place, and we're excited about collaborations that open the conservancy up to new research opportunities," said Sarah Mitchell, executive director and vice president of Cook's Branch Conservancy, a program of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

Mitchell's grandparents, Cynthia and George Mitchell, purchased the land in 1964, and the family began a major, long-term habitat restoration project there in 1990. The sprawling preserve includes both grasslands and piney woods habitats, and Solomon's students collected insects in each. He said he hopes to return with a new group of students each year to help the conservancy build a long-term record of insect species' diversity and distributions.

"The sheer number of species that we find in a particular spot will tell us something about how the habitat is doing from an environmental perspective," Solomon said. "But also, we can look at what those species are. If we find a lot of native species as opposed to invasive species, that's an indication that the environment is healthy."

Solomon said field experience is a critical component of a number of ecology and evolutionary biology lab courses at Rice. For example, students enrolled in EBIO 213, the lab course for Introductory Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, conduct three outdoor field exercises on-campus and a fourth at Brazos Bend State Park. EBIO 379, an aquatic ecology lab, offers students a chance to both earn their scuba certification and study aquatic ecosystems in natural springs in Central Texas. And EBIO 319 offers students an intensive, two-week summer field experience in both the rainforest and the offshore coral reefs of Belize. 

Solomon said the field experiences offered in these and other BioSciences courses provide an educational experience that can't be found in the classroom or online.

"The students get a lot out of this kind of experience," Solomon said. "We bring them out and give them the opportunity to explore and indulge their curiosity and to do real science. They aren't just replicating something that's already been done. They are making their own observations and in some cases gathering data to test their own hypotheses."

He said the collaboration with Cook's Branch Conservancy offers a unique experience for students to see native habitats that simply aren't available in other settings near to Houston.

"There are very few places that are this large, that have natural environments that are in close proximity to Houston where we can actually go and give students an opportunity to be out in the field, in nature and see some of the native species of insects that we have in the area," Solomon said.

Cook's Branch was recognized with the 2012 Leopold Conservation Award, the state of Texas’s highest honor for habitat management and wildlife conservation on private land.

Mitchell said the collaboration with Rice "brings an excellent standard of research, an excellent reputation and excellent professors."

"Something that they discover here can assist in assessing what practices are best or what works best for a healthy ecosystem, and we can disseminate that to other land owners in the community," she said. 

Video footage: http://goo.gl/oeyp5M

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