Science in the wild

New partnership gets students out of the classroom, into nature


It’s the middle of October, and a group of 17 Baldwin Wallace geology students trek down a muddy, stony path.
From their van they carry tripods, leveling cameras tucked away in luminous orange cases, measuring sticks that extend to over seven-feet tall, pens and paper, and a sense of inquisitiveness.
Their path takes them through wide clearings in a forest, alongside abandoned cabins that once contained the laughter of Girl Scouts. They pass along trees that still retain etchings of lovers of times past.
The group of seventeen students split at an abrupt clearing in the forest, some continue along the muddy path, while eight others turn down a long descending path of grass – a wide opening void of any vegetation aside from the dense grass and fallen leaves at their feet, cleared to make room for the gas line that now rests beneath the surface.
Traces of tractors, whose tires dug deep dents into the still fresh mud, decorate the bottom of the grassy hill. Here too the group splits again, four students cross a weakening bridge in the distance, while the other four disappear into the unaltered woods.
Each group is heading to a stream — the same stream. It flows from a lake known, not exactly creatively, as the Upper Lake to the Lower Lake. The students that traveled down the cleared grassy path are located at a higher elevation that those that continued along the muddy, stony path. Together, these groups are characterizing sections of a stream that have never before been otherwise observed by scientific eyes.  Their goal: to characterize the stream on the property, since it hasn’t been quantifiably observed since the late 1800s.
Today, the site, which is officially the Richfield Heritage Preserve, is open to BW students like these as a living laboratory of biodiversity as part of a new partnership.
Just over two years ago, these students’ endeavors would only be a mere twinkle in Dr. Chris Stanton’s eye, when the professor of biology first visited the expansive 336-acre plot of land that comprises the Richfield Heritage Preserve. After all, the site, which was once the Crowell-Hilaka Girl Scout Camp, was never intended to be a science lab.
“About six years ago, the Girl Scouts of Northeast Ohio decided to sell off their five camps, and [the Richfield site] was one of [them],” he said. “Some of the leaders fought a massive fight to save the camp, and eventually the residents of Richfield bought it to preserve it.”
During that same time, Stanton and other professors in the Department of Biology at Baldwin Wallace did their best to expose students to real-life field applications of the concepts and techniques that they were learning about in lecture.
Typically, this would result in agreements with, and subsequent trips to, the nearby Rocky River Reservation that extends from Berea through Brook Park, North Olmsted and Olmsted Falls and into Lakewood. While a great opportunity, the idealizations of the BW professors were often met with challenges and limitations.
For example, Stanton said, one attempt at an observational study of bumblebees in the Metroparks was thwarted by a maintenance crew who would often mow over the field that they were using.
“We just didn’t have any control over maintenance or mowing schedules,” he said.
Dr. Carrie Davis-Todd, associate professor of geology, is one of the few other BW faculty currently taking full advantage of the new partnership at Richfield, and for similar reasons: it puts the research at the forefront.
“In the past I’ve worked with the Metroparks to conduct techniques like pebble counts, cross-sections, etc., but I felt like I didn’t have a lot of control over [it],” she said.
Now, professors have the opportunity to delve deep into the undocumented regions of this preserved park, and implement class-related activities as well as their own personal research with previously unprecedented freedoms.
For professors like Davis-Todd, the development is hard to overstate.
“On a personal note, [the partnership] is what I feel like has been missing from my career,” she said.
Davis Todd said that she has previously worked at a university that was located adjacent to acres of land that she could utilize for her classes. At the time, she had the freedom to take students directly from class and easily and effectively demonstrate techniques and conduct long-term projects without many complications.
When she came to BW, however, she said she ran into the issue of  locating a similar area that would offer the same experiential learning opportunities.
As of now, there are no cost to BW for the partnership in regards to maintenance of the Preserve, but Stanton said that those who have gotten involved with the land consult with the Richfield Joint Recreation District (RJRD) – comprised of seven individuals – for free and aid in decision making.
“We don’t own the property,” Stanton said, “but it’s a partnership where they’re letting us utilize the property… [and] we do have a voice in how it’s managed.”
As a part of the agreement, Stanton said that the Preserve is allowing BW professors access to some of the buildings that remain on the premises. One of these buildings is the Coach House, which Stanton envisions could become an office and meeting space and a potential library. Another building is the Chagrin Valley Cabin, which Stanton said might be revitalized into a classroom and laboratory setting for classes conducted at the site.
However, both of these buildings remain in their previous state of use, he said, and would require additional funding for revitalizations to become fully usable to conduct classes, research, and other events.
If these buildings were renovated, professors like Stanton and Davis-Todd would be better able to conduct their ongoing research projects in the area, he said.
Already, the pair has spent considerable time and study in the park, investigating topics as diverse as the population of coyotes in the area to mapping the hydrological and geological aspects of streams on the property in advance of a annual dam release upriver.
Other ongoing studies at the site include student work, including monitoring the quality of well water, which is being conducted in part as an independent study project by junior biology major Tylor Mahany, and a new observational study of the effects of road reconstruction farther upstream that the Upper Lake on the property, assisted by junior biology major Sebastian Barkett. Other studies of the area are in the works by both Stanton and Davis-Todd.
The new partnership and studies such as these not only benefit the BW Biology and scientific communities, but also the residents of Richfield, and the BW community as a whole, Stanton said.
The reserve, which is located at 4378 Broadview Road, is open from dawn until dusk every day of the week, and is open to all BW students any time they wish to use the property.
“Art students, photography students, history students… I’d love for them [all] to go down and explore,” Stanton said. “They have access to this campus too by being affiliated with Baldwin Wallace.”
The future of BW’s partnership with the RJRD and the Richfield Heritage Preserve is still in it’s infancy, Davis-Todd said, and there is much room for growth of involvement for the entire BW community.
Current ongoing research is planned to be presented at a symposium near the end of the Spring 2018 semester.
For professors and students looking to utilize the new partnership, Stanton can be reached at [email protected].