The Value of Students Exploring Ecosystem Services on Urban Campuses : Care of the Whole Campus

By Cath Kleier and Kristofor Voss

Thirteen ecologists representing ten Jesuit universities presented their work on August 7, 2018, at the Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting in New Orleans, LA. The theme of this year’s meeting was “Extreme events, ecosystem resilience and human well-being.”  Our session focused on urban ecology, which studies how plants and animals interact with the environment in and near cities.  Each faculty member presented how their ecology courses were expanding on the ideas put forth in the pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’; that is, each one showed us how they were promoting not just care of the individual, but care of the environment around their campuses. 

In a nod to the location of our meeting, Loyola New Orleans, presented first.  Paul W. Barnes and Craig Hood presented on the history of the environmental studies program and the environmental history about New Orleans.  Of course, Hurricane Katrina figured into the timeline.  What we found interesting was that many younger people had moved to the city after the disaster, and that this influx of millennials was changing New Orleans for the better by promoting more green space, better walking infrastructure, and increased bike lanes. Another unique aspect of the Loyola New Orleans, program was their formation of environmental roundtables with members of the local environmental sector to the Institute for Environmental Communications.

Tara Pisani Gareau outlined the capstone work that environmental science minors complete at Boston College.  We were surprised by how much their minors accomplished in one semester of their capstone projects.  Some of her students also completed a rigorous study of urban metabolism of their campus, which, analogous to studies of animals, includes the input of energy and the output of waste.  They discovered that their campus generates nine  tons of solid waste a day.  On a more positive note, another project found that 23 out of 30 participants reported a lower heart rate after going on a campus tree tour – even in winter. 

Trees on campus are not just important for well-being, but also serve as green laboratories that engage students in biological research. Justen Whittall at Santa Clara University, assisted by undergraduate student, Sophia Huang, uses trees for a laboratory exercise where students create phylogenies.  Justen has students create a “Tree of Trees.”  That is, he has them determine the relatedness among several tree species on campus. They gain skills of tree identification and understanding evolutionary patterns.  

The work on honeybee diversity of Gerardo Camillo, an ecologist at Saint Louis University, was highly impressive.  As with many Jesuit schools, Saint Louis University sits on the border between an economically disadvantaged neighborhood and one of greater monetary means.  A key question he asks, with students, is how that economic disparity might affect biodiversity.  Surprisingly, he and his students find that less money spent on manicured lawns and gardens translates to more bees. 

One of us, Kris Voss at Regis University, outlined the importance of place-based research in education.  He discussed how studies near campus investigating urban-heat islands, macroinvertebrates, and invasive species monitoring, have serendipitously led to professional collaborations with federal agencies further afield.  The theme of place-based education continued at Loyola Marymount University where Pippa Drennan has been monitoring the dune communities of the nearby Ballona Creek Wetlands.  As these wetlands lie in a heavily populated and highly desirable part of coastal Los Angeles, they remained quite degraded until recent restoration efforts successfully improved conditions for a number of native species including Salicornia virginica, a wetland plant with the highest known salt tolerance in the world.

Faculty members together at the Ecological Society of America meeting. Photo featured courtesy of Cath Kleier

Faculty members together at the Ecological Society of America meeting. Photo featured courtesy of Cath Kleier

JD Lewis explained Fordham University’s National Science Foundation grant that funds an outreach program, Project TRUE, with collaboration from the Wildlife Conservation Society. This tiered peer mentoring program gives local high school students opportunities to conduct research topics in urban ecology at the Brooklyn Zoo.  The high school students are mentored by Fordham undergraduate students, who are in turn overseen by graduate student mentors from Fordham. See for a description of the program.

From Rockhurst University, Mary Haskins told us about her efforts to engage students through several projects where students investigate ecologically focused industries such as wastewater treatment, electronic waste surplus, and aquaponics.

While this was a meeting of ecologists, many scholars there also studied pedagogy and ways of knowing and learning.  John Ruppert from Saint Peters University, talked about his research involving the importance of epistemic aims and how ideas have to coincide with students’ worldview.  Changing a student’s mindset needs to start with care instead of concepts, and John proposed flipping the classroom to introduce ideas, such as ecosystem services in terms of everyday concerns before launching into the concepts or data that support the need for these services. 

Rounding out our session, Jason Luscier of LeMoyne College gave a passionate presentation on how he has created an app, called CatTracker, to record the presence and behavior of feral cats.  To those in the audience, the idea that feral cats decrease songbird populations was well known.  However, cat lovers remain ambivalent about controlling feral cat populations.  Jason’s app will help collect data on the magnitude of the problem, and it can be used anywhere in the world!

For us the main value of gathering ecologists from several Jesuit universities was the chance to make connections and be inspired by the ways others incorporate the mission into their teaching and research. We learned about several activities we hope to add to our own classes.  Looking forward, we’ve started a listserve to share ideas and to prepare another session for the Ecological Society of America meeting next year.  We also discussed the possibility of forming a research network where AJCU students across the country will collect data to examine a similar problem.

Because so many of these presentations were based in or near Jesuit universities, the importance of green space conservation both on our campuses, and in surrounding areas, cannot be overemphasized.  As Tara Pisani Gareau’s presentation pointed out, these spaces are not just for ecological studies, they are also for the well-being of our students.  If we are to commit to the care of the whole person, we should also commit to the care of the whole campus.  Since a campus does not, and cannot, exist in an ecological vacuum, the connectivity of our campuses to nearby open space becomes a vital part of preserving urban ecosystems. 

Catherine Kleier is Professor of Ecology at Regis University. Kris Voss is Assistant Professor of Biology at Regis University.

In the cover photo, Kris Voss (Regis University) presents on place-based ecology education at the Ecological Society of America meeting in New Orleans, August, 2018.  Photo by Cath Kleier.