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July 7, 2005

Pitt at Pymatuning: Ecology lab provides natural settings for learning

The Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology is part of Pitt’s Department of Biological Sciences and owns or leases seven sites including labs, classrooms, housing, administrative offices, a northern hardwood forest and fields.

“The University has a 80-year history of offering field courses and conducting field research in northwestern Pennsylvania,” said Peter Quinby, director of the lab. He noted that the lab “gives us access to a huge variety of habitats that are both natural and human dominated.”

Pitt undergraduates as well as students from other institutions enroll in the lab’s three-week classes that include ecology, wildlife management, conservation biology and aquatic biology. Four sessions are offered throughout the summer. Interest in the lab’s offerings is growing: Undergraduate enrollment in 2005 has increased by 30 percent since 2003.

Enrollment isn’t the only thing that has expanded. Over the last decade, three new research properties have been acquired and several labs and an apartment complex for researchers have been renovated. Last year, wireless Internet service was established at the Pitt facility. And later this summer, 25 experimental ponds will be dug and completed with funding from the School of Arts and Sciences.

Now the Pitt lab wants to expand the number of educational institutions participating. Currently, Pitt is in a consortium with three other universities —Edinboro, Clarion and Slippery Rock — whose students can enroll in any Pitt class at Pymatuning. In return, each school provides an instructor, a teaching assistant and a van.

Randy Layne, an associate professor of biology from Slippery Rock University who is teaching an ecology course, is in his second year as an instructor at Pymatuning. According to Layne, the three-week course sessions and the natural setting provide an enriching environment for teaching ecology.

Layne likes teaching the three-week classes because they allow students to immerse themselves in their subject. “These courses create more time for students to do detailed and meaningful lab exercises,” he noted. Recently, he took students into the field to catch dragonflies, record details of the insects, and then mark them with fingernail polish as part of a population survey.

Anthony Bledsoe, ornithologist and lecturer in Pitt’s biological sciences department, has been teaching at the Pymatuning lab since 1992.

Besides the opportunity to teach students in a diverse ecological environment, he enjoys interacting with other scholars, something the lab’s Wednesday seminar series facilitates. Researchers from Pymatuning and other institutions present research seminars to a large group of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates.

“Typically, the attendees will have dinner in the dining hall, so there is interaction among the various researchers. And because my interests in birds overlaps with several bird researchers, we’re always talking about how the field research is going, what birds are seen, etc.”

Former Pitt biology professor William Searcy, now at the University of Miami, continues to conduct his field research on song and swamp sparrows at the lab. He’s been at Pymatuning for more than 20 years.

“A major reason that I keep returning is the ready availability of our two main study species in the surrounding area,” Searcy said. “Both species are highly abundant locally and occupy sites that are easy to access. We study these species mainly on lands belonging to the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Pymatuning State Park, and over the years we have built up good working relationships with both those institutions, which also greatly facilitates our research here.”

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