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Learning outside of the book

PEI's Winter River. Photo by the Winter River-Tracadie Bay Watershed Association
Posted on Thursday, 15 November 2012
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This is the second post in a series on the Student as Scholar initiative at UPEI.

“Dr. Giberson didn’t teach the course from a book, the way some professors do,” says Travis James, an honours biology student at UPEI. He’s referring to the unique learning experience offered by Dr. Donna Giberson, Professor of Biology, in her fourth-year Watershed Ecology course. “She put a much higher emphasis on her students knowing what is important to think about when working in the aquatic sciences, and how to conduct proper research.”

Dr. Giberson emphasizes learning through research in Watershed Ecology (Biology 462). As much of this research involves assessing the health and ecology of watershed areas, she saw an opportunity for service.

“Watershed groups on Prince Edward Island are desperate for staff and don’t have the resources to hire them,” says Dr. Giberson. “At the same time, our students have skills that are very useful to these groups. By working together, we provide a valuable service, but the students also gain experience.”

Many of the student groups in Biology 462 are assigned to create riparian assessment reports—an evaluation of the vegetation, soil type, diversity, and amount of erosion of the area immediately beside a river or stream.

“Many watershed groups know what the problem areas of their rivers and streams are, and many have made efforts to repair these areas,” explains Dr. Giberson. “These riparian assessments provide invaluable data about how well their strategy is working.”

Travis James’ team was called upon by a group in Tracadie Bay to measure the amount of sediment from farm runoff that lies at the bottom of Hardy’s Pond.

“The watershed group’s plan was to draw down the water of the pond and remove the sediment by truck,” says Dr. Giberson, “but they needed to first know how much sediment they were dealing with—especially to know how many truckloads they’d be removing.”

Travis James’ team was able to make soundings and measurements using GPS technology to provide a report back to the watershed association.

“That particular project taught me one of the most important lessons anyone can learn in research,” says James. “No matter how much you plan, or how simple something seems, something will always go wrong and everything will take longer than originally thought. To this note, I learned to always plan ahead and leave plenty of time for a project to be completed.”

Now graduated, James has returned to Biology 462, this time as a student assistant.

“I would describe this course as one of the best field-style biology courses offered at UPEI,” says James. “It lets you get a taste for research on your own. It involves a good amount of group work and offers lots of opportunity to get outside. I would say that any student interested in aquatic science, ecology, or just getting outside for class, should take this course.”