Independent Study Immerses Students in West Virginia Ecosystem

by Robert Gardner, Think Green Correspondent

Environmental Sciences assistant professor Jerry Coleman refers to himself as the “token eco-biologist” at Montgomery County Community College.  Since arriving at the College in fall 1999—after spending most of the ‘90s at West Virginia University (WVU) performing post-doctoral work—Coleman has offered a unique, three-credit course.  “Field Biology of West Virginia” is a two-week, intensive independent study course open to all students.  In fact, few of the students who enroll are Environmental Science majors.  This suits Coleman just fine.

“I want to encourage all people to take an interest in the outdoors,” he said.

Coleman said the goal of the course has always been to get the students to see the woods in a different way.  Most important, he wants everyone to understand what a fragile ecosystem they inhabit and how impactful their presence can be.  For good or for bad.

“I can cite a few [people] whose career paths were changed by this course,” he added.  “They’ve gotten involved in environmental action.”

“I went into it quite blindly,” said Liberal Studies major Amanda Dioszeghy.  “Mr Coleman—or ‘Jerry,” as we called him—showed us both sides to every story.  That really opened up my eyes on pressing environmental issues.  After this class, I am more aware of our precious planet.  Going green isn’t a fad or a trend.  It really is a way of life.”

Dioszeghy serves as Editor-in-Chief of The Montgazette, the student-run newspaper of Montgomery County Community College.  After spending all of her college career in classrooms and news meetings, she wanted to try something new and have a “hands-on” experience.

“It wasn’t the grade or the credits that mattered,” she said.  “I finally understood how much my actions mattered.”  [Emphasis hers.]

Coleman inherited the field biology course from his predecessor Dick Andren.  For 23 years, Andren led the independent study group to Maine.  With Coleman on-board for final two years, the group also went to West Virginia—thus beginning the current course.

“Maine was fantastic, but after two years there with Dick, I still knew more about West Virginia,” Coleman said.  “Plus, I had more contacts there.”

Among those contacts is Dr. Petra Wood, with whom Coleman worked at WVU.  Wood and her husband, both anti-coal mining activists, took part in a very detailed conversation regarding coal mining restoration.  She advocated for the protection of endangered species.  Dr Wood serves as both Adjunct Professor of Wildlife and Fishery Resources at WVU and Assistant Unit Leader with the United States Geological Survey.  The pro-coal argument was presented by Dr. Jeff Skousen, WVU Professor of Soil Science.  The students engaged their guests with enthusiasm, discussing both sides of mining’s effects on the environment, including the effects of habitat fragmentation on biodiversity.

“My role [in this course] is not to preach politics, but show the students the biological considerations involved,” said Coleman.  “That,” he added “is field biology.”

He called the forests of West Virginia a “hodgepodge of environments,” some being more characteristic of Canada than the U.S.  The students, therefore, gain exposure to a greater diversity of plant- and wildlife.  This year, they saw very little wildlife.

“It’s hit or miss.  We didn’t see any rattlesnakes this year.  No bears.  Most years, we typically see some.”

The 2012 group ranged in age from 18 to 25, which was slightly younger than most years,’ with students up to 45 years-old.  According to Coleman, about two-thirds of the students this year came from his environmental sciences class.  Before the trip each year, Coleman interviews each potential student to discuss expectations, environmental interests, and medical issues, etc.  Participants all sign legal liability waivers.

“Students always come back with scratches,” he said.  “Twisted ankles aren’t out of the realm of possibility too.”

“It’s not for the ill of heart!  Or for those afraid to get their hands dirty,” Dioszeghy warned.  “If you’re looking to challenge your views, this is the course for you.”

The course is not all science and learning.  The group camps for two weeks, first at Chestnut Ridge—a county park near Morgantown—then at a private campground in Seneca Rocks.  Setting up camp, cooking, cleaning: that’s all on the students themselves.  They also spend a day white water rafting, taking on up to Class Four rapids!

“They are responsible for their living, having fun.  I do the science part,” Coleman said with a slight chuckle.  He calls it the “highlight” of his academic year and looks forward to next year’s trip, expressing his appreciation for the students’ continued work and interest in the environment.

“I am honored to be a part of something so important.”

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Photos by Zach Schmidt

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