<< Spotlights

Allison Meyer found a muddy shoe. Another student found a garden trowel. Valparaiso University’s biology club members made several unlikely discoveries to expand on classroom knowledge while restoring the region’s rivers this spring.

The club was working at the Elkhart Conservation Club property on Cobus Creek, five miles west of Elkhart, Ind., when Meyer found the discarded footwear on her first restoration trip. While there, Valpo students gained invaluable hands-on experience to further develop lessons learned in the classroom.

Biology club members partake in a variety of tasks on their restoration trips. Over the years, students have helped the Elkhart Conservation Club to deliver fish and maintain the hatchery. They also monitor the river for flow, chemistry, macro invertebrates, bank stability, and habitat. Other river restoration activities include removing log jams; stabilizing the river bank with stone, logs, mesh, or plantings; narrowing the channel; redirecting flows; and building trout and macro invertebrate habitats.

For Meyer, a junior biology and chemistry major from Huntington, Ind., restoring one of the few cold-water trout streams in Indiana showed the real-world implications of her classroom knowledge.

“Going on the restoration really opened my eyes about what it takes to keep the parks and various places viable and how much work it takes to make sure the organisms that live in these places have a good habitat,” Meyer said.

The biology club was founded in 1933, but it did not begin to do river work until 1999. In the last academic year, the club performed 10 river restorations with 119 students and 20 nonstudent residents. Anyone — including non-biology students as well as community members — may participate.

“My goal is more community involvement and more participation from residents who fish,” said Grayson Davis, professor of biology and the club’s advisor, noting that fishers have much to teach students about natural ecology, too.

 

The ECC has seen dramatic improvements on their trout stream, grounds, and facilities throughout the years, thanks largely to the biology club. The picturesque grounds include a rustic cabin and a 35,000 trout hatchery responsible for raising more than $1 million worth of brown trout for local rivers. Recent wildlife sightings at the club include turkeys, owls, bald eagles, sandhill cranes, coyotes, fox, and deer.

As the faculty leader, Davis’ extensive knowledge, love of the outdoors, and ability to see the long-term impacts of the club’s restoration efforts naturally flow to his students. Travis Simmons attended his first restoration in March. As a junior biology major from Angola, Ind., and a student in Davis’ developmental biology class, Simmons described Davis as an “amazing professor to work with because he does what he loves.”

The club’s president, Veronica Clancy, agrees. Though Clancy values learning by serving the region’s rivers, she further values working with a faculty member with intense passion.

“To list what I have learned from participating in the club would be nearly impossible,” said Clancy, a senior biology and environmental studies major from Hebron, Ind. “The most important thing I have learned, however, is that I must I find a career that I love as much as Dr. Davis loves his.”

Davis’ impact on his students is palpable. Like Clancy, Halina Hopkins, a senior from Columbus, Ind. who is majoring in biology, environmental science, and humanities, hopes to apply her experience in the biology club toward a meaningful vocation.

“As a future science teacher, I’m interested in creating experiences like this for my own students,” Hopkins said. “I can see connections between this work and topics we’ve discussed in ecology class and in my own research, which deals with aquatic macro invertebrates.”

Hopkins and the biology department recognize that hands-on learning — in a laboratory and beyond the lab — influences students’ learning. Davis described the biology department’s philosophy using a Chinese proverb: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

For the club and its budding conservationists, perhaps the most unlikely discovery on river outings is not only what they learn about biology, but also what they discover about themselves.