Students Get Unique Opportunity for Field Work

Season one of Northwest Vista College’s EcoLab officially kicked off this past semester with students experiencing field work in Bandera, Texas.

“We signed an agreement with the landowner in April 2020, just as the pandemic was getting started,” said Scott Walker, coordinator of the Geography and Environmental Studies program at NVC. “This spring was the first time we were able to get students out there for field excursions.”

The EcoLab is a 30-acre ranch between Pipe Creek and Bandera. It is a place where faculty and students can do environmental science rather than just learn about it in the class. Students and faculty visited the EcoLab three times.

Students were supported by NVC’s 2021-2022 Innovation Award designed to reimburse them for mileage and compensate them for their research work. While the President’s Innovation Award provided the seed funds for season one of the EcoLab, a generous gift from Microsoft will help perpetuate this undergraduate research experience.

“Very few community colleges across the nation offer environmental field studies opportunities. This is a unique experiential learning opportunity,” according to Dr. Walker.

NVC will continue this and other research opportunities on campus and at the EcoLab next fall. The first excursion was to establish a grid on the land from which to do random bird censuses. It was also to set out motion-triggered trail cameras in randomized locations. The second trip involved students conducting longitudinal and point bird censuses. Students also retrieved pictures from the trail cameras. The third venture repeated the second but was during peak bird migration.

Students used an artificial intelligence audio identification tool from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to help distinguish birds by their songs. It is an app that records bird calls then suggests what the bird species is. Then students upload the bird type through eBird, another app, to participate in Cornell Lab’s citizen science program that tracks the movement and numbers of bird species.

When asked how to improve community college students doing field research, a few students commented:

“I wanted to experience actual field work and research practices,” said a Northwest Vista College student in an anonymous survey about conducting research at NVC’s EcoLab.

“It needs to be more frequent,” another stated, adding “I would like to be able to go into the field more often.”

Students will also have an opportunity to participate in an international field studies program in Costa Rica in summer 2023. The adventure science field study program in Costa Rica will include for-credit (ENVR and ANTH) research with sea turtles, scarlet macaws, crocodiles, rays, and monkeys. Travel scholarships are available, some students may be fully funded.

NVC’s EcoLab is open to all NVC faculty. Students interested in being part of the adventure science experience should contact Dr. Scott Walker at swalker6@alamo.edu for information.