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From the College of Natural Sciences
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Cool Class: Field Ecology

Cool Class: Field Ecology
In some classes, students are assigned readings from a big textbook; others are assigned computer problems or chemistry formulas.

But there’s probably only one course at the university in which students are assigned an entire acre of land filled with trees, wildflowers, buzzing insects and birds: Dr. Larry Gilbert’s field ecology class at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory (BFL).

For the first part of every semester, that acre becomes a personal laboratory in which students practice (mostly outside of class time) methods of field ecology that they’re learning from Gilbert and his graduate student teaching assistant, who is culled from the ranks of outstanding ecology, evolution and behavior doctoral students.

It’s an immersive field lab experience in which students not only learn how to perceive ecological patterns, frame hypotheses and collect data in the field, but how to analyze it, how to write professional-quality lab reports, and how to think about what they’ve learned in the context of Texas ecology and natural history.

“I designed the course in 1999, just as life science at the university was being reorganized,” says Gilbert. “When I took ecology at UT in 1964, lecture and lab were combined for three hours of course credit. It was still like that in 1999. I wanted to make the lab a stand-alone course based in the field, and BFL was a perfect venue. In a real sense, I designed a course that I would have wanted to take when I was an undergraduate in the days before BFL.UT is unique in being able to offer this experience because we have BFL available so close to campus.”

In addition to the weekly four-hour class sessions out at BFL, students and staff take two overnight field trips during the course of the semester, one to the Stengl Lost Pines Biological Station and one to Chaparral Wildlife management area in South Texas brush country. They have to compose essays comparing these three distinct ecosystems.

“It was the hardest work I ever had to do,” says Susie Wadgymar, who took the course in the fall of 2008 and is now a graduate student in ecology and evolution at The University of Toronto. “It drove me crazy at time, but I can’t imagine not going through it. I would completely be over my head in a graduate school if not for that experience. And studying with Dr. Gilbert was just amazing. He has an incredible memory and a real passion for the subject. He’s been working with the land for so long that he can contextualize it. He can say, ‘Oh, back in 1970 this used to be this way.’”

For Caimee Schoenbaechler, who took field ecology in the fall of 2001, the class was the single most important academic experience she had while in the College of Natural Sciences.

“It was the impetus for my decision to pursue a career in ecological science,” says Schoenbaechler, who went on to get a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University. “Bar none it was my favorite class at UT. More than anything I think it was Dr. Gilbert’s enthusiasm. I remember one evening, I was working late out at BFL, and I was exhausted. He came in and started talking to me about my project, and by the end of the conversation I was totally energized.”

For more information on BIO 373L: Field Ecology, visit the class website.

For pictures of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory, visit Dr. Gilbert’s online photo album.
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Wednesday, 26 January 2022

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