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Fostering Long-Term, Collaborative Research in Environmental Science at ACM Field Stations

ACM institutions have a long tradition of establishing and managing field stations, to engage students in the study of the environment using active learning, and research- and place-based pedagogies. Field stations have long integrated on- and off-campus learning, but they have largely worked in isolation, despite sharing a focus on the restoration of local native communities (prairies, savannahs, wetlands, and woodlands).

This project establishes a network between four ACM institutions with strong traditions and multiple faculty and staff engaged in local field station research and teaching. Our goals are to identify common challenges in management, teaching, and research and to establish priorities for the future.

Funds will support:

  1. an initial meeting of representatives from the four institutions with the goal of informing faculty and staff of the history of research, teaching, and management at each field station;
  2. site visits and online meetings to develop potential collaborations and identify additional partners; and
  3. a workshop to decide upon collaborative research, teaching, and monitoring projects, including those that could be supported by external grants. For this workshop, we will invite faculty from many disciplines with interest in joining the collaboration network from other ACM institutions, including those without field stations.

Note: Adapted from original project proposal.

We seek to develop a network of collaboration among faculty and staff across several ACM institutions, each with distinctive histories of engaging students in the scientific study of local Midwestern environments.

The project will support ongoing, successful pedagogical approaches that are problem-based, seeking to understand processes behind changes in the environment, particularly those important to successful restoration and management of habitats that have been degraded or destroyed by changes in land use since Euro-American colonization.A single network of collaboration will expand student opportunities to contribute meaningfully to this understanding.While there have been two recent ACM projects involving field study, this project is unique in focusing on environments local to each institution. At the same time, collaboration across institutions and locales will allow for parallel long-term experiments, shared databases, and linked courses.

Managing and learning from local environments has a number of inherent challenges. First, ecological processes are slow and thus require long-term research planning, well-suited to engaging students in classes over the years to build long-term databases. Second, ecological outcomes are often site-specific, so creating parallel studies across field stations can lead to important insight into the generality of environmental challenges and their solutions. While each institution is small, a network of faculty and staff will provide the multi-disciplinary expertise required, along with varied experiences in pedagogical and research approaches. This will allow us to compete with groups from larger institutions while seeking funding for supporting longer term collaborations, a major goal of this project.

The team includes St. Olaf faculty who have been involved in the establishment of a field study network among institutions (Ecological Research as Education Network, erenweb.org), a project previously funded by the NSF. They will bring their perspectives to building a network of collaboration on a smaller scale and between liberal arts institutions that share the Midwest region as their locale.

In addition to the project team, we anticipate involving the following faculty and staff from each institution:

  • Grinnell College: Kathryn Jacobson, Professor of Biology; Elizabeth Hill, Manager, Conard Environmental Research Area; Jonathan Andelson, Professor of Anthropology; Lee Running, Associate Professor of Art
  • St. Olaf College: Diane Angell, Assistant Professor of Biology; Jean Porterfield, Associate Professor of Biology; Nic Nelson, Natural Lands Manager
  • Knox College: Jim Mountjoy, Associate Professor of Biology


  • Problem-based/place-based pedagogy is a form of active learning, which all our institutions prioritize. For example, the National Academy’s Vision and Change Education Report in Biology Education emphasizes that biological concepts are best learned when research is meaningful and applied to relevant problems.
  • Our collaborative, cross-site investigations will address local environmental challenges in a changing world, a keen interest of students who have grown up in an era when climate change is real and a threat.
  • The network will benefit faculty development and research through peer mentoring and the establishment of a community of scholars with common interests.
  • Our institutions also value interdisciplinary learning and scholarship. Studies of the environment are inherently multidisciplinary, requiring perspectives from across the sciences and non-sciences. We will reach out to faculty in disciplines other than biology (e.g., chemistry, math, history, social studies, fine arts etc.) to engage in collaborative pedagogical and research activities.
  • Linking together the faculty and staff who manage our field stations will also allow them to identify common challenges and solutions to using field stations for diverse types of experiential learning, research, and outdoor recreation.
  • Finally, wise management of investments and resources is a common goal of our institutions, one that is threatened by invasive species, overabundant herbivores (especially deer), intensification of food and energy production in neighboring areas, and conflicts between different uses. Linking faculty and staff who manage field stations will help provided advice and support for addressing these challenges.


We plan to establish collaborations using the following process, which will be guided by a four-person executive committee of faculty, one from each institution:

  1. An initial meeting of faculty and staff from the four core institutions. First, teams from each institution will summarize the history of management and research at each location, so we can identify common themes and approaches to research and teaching and common challenges. By the end of this meeting, the goal is to identify a small set of targeted, collaborative projects for further development. Project examples include: (a) replicating field experiments and environmental monitoring across sites, particularly important in an era of rapid changes in climate; (b) sharing and management of data; and (c) embedding cross-locale research into courses.
  2. Online meetings and site visits by members of subcommittees, each to develop specific plans for collaboration. This would include invitation of additional faculty collaborators from other ACM institutions, including those without field stations, in order to broaden expertise and participation.
  3. A final workshop to discuss each subcommittee’s plans and to decide collectively which to develop further, either by beginning collaborative activities, or by identifying targets for external funding and planning grant submission.

Dissemination Strategies

We will develop a webpage where faculty at ACM and other institutions can read about the projects and outcomes. One model for this website is the Ecological Research as Education Network (erenweb.org). A digital repository for long-term data sets and lab activities to be shared among ACM schools could be archived on Digital Grinnell (https://digital.grinnell.edu/).

Outcomes of these collaborative projects will also be of interest to the broader scientific community, so we expect to present findings from these projects at scientific conferences and in journal publications.

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