Sophomores in Mr. Schlenker’s Biology & Chemistry 2 class could be found rooting around in the woods behind the science building last Thursday morning, conducting their annual “Ecology Scavenger Hunt.” Over the next few classes, they would make far richer—and lasting— connections between what they encountered in the woods and their subsequent assignments than if they had spent that time examining online or print images of specimens.
Adding his expertise to the class was visiting ecology expert Jeff Collins, Director of Mass Audubon's Ecological Management Department. Mr. Collins patiently answered dozens of questions, sharing his obvious enthusiasm and curiosity for the woods, pointing out spider webs, nests, climbing vines, leaf litter, a bird carcass, and deer feces. He has had plenty of experience with budding botanists as the coordinator of visitor activities at the Audubon sanctuaries, and as the leader of international birding and botany tours.
After a brief review of how to identify – and avoid – the poison ivy that runs rampant in the woods, pairs of students created square meter transects in the woods that they examined for evidence of plants and animals in order to begin to understand the local ecosystem. Within minutes, students were busy photographing and cataloging various specimens as producers, primary consumers, secondary consumers, omnivores, or decomposers/detritivores. Mushrooms? Decomposers. Ants? Primary consumers and decomposers. Spider? Secondary consumer. A duck skull? Once a primary consumer.
Back in the classroom, students were asked to create a food web of some the organisms often found in the Rivers woods, such as a maple tree, deer, praying mantis, spider, ant, coyote, beetle bug, lichen, red wing, blueberry bush, squirrel, pine tree. In addition, they drew energy pyramids, and calculated the concentration of DDT throughout the food chain, based on a theoretical concentration that might be found in the groundwater.
Mr. Schlenker’s class is just one of many science, art, and humanities classes that venture outdoors in the course of the year to take advantage of Nonesuch Pond and its environs. Rivers is fortunate to have such a variety of natural resources in its backyard, and faculty who are willing and ready to risk a little poison ivy to give their students the opportunity to experience, learn from, or be inspired by their surroundings.