Summer workshop puts students in the field, contributing to local conservation efforts

July 1, 2015

What could be better than spending the summer in the great outdoors? How about spending the summer in the great outdoors and getting college credit for it.

Alison Duff, an associate lecturer at UW-Madison, is teaching the field ecology workshop this summer with two goals in mind: provide students with an introduction to the science and practice of ecological field data collection, and spend as much time outside as possible.

The undergraduate environmental studies course involves a lot of hands-on work with topics such as pollinator monitoring, small mammal trapping and release, and plant identification. It’s aimed at students who have little experience in the field, in an effort to help them discover a topic that stirs their passions.

“We have a lot of really great courses on campus that cover different topics in depth — whether it be botany or wildlife ecology or birding — so this was a chance to give a broad overview,” said Duff. “Then, if students determine that they really like one topic, they can explore it further.”

Duff is aiming to connect students with as many citizen monitoring protocols as possible, so they can have the opportunity to continue volunteering if they are interested. Over the summer, the students will be working with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, contributing to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas and collecting ecological data in the Mazomanie Oak Barrens State Natural Area. They will also work with the Wisconsin Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology monitoring insect pollinators in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, as well as many field biologists, offering insight into the varieties of field work.

Alison Duff leads an environmental studies field ecology workshopAlison Duff, right, aims to connect students with volunteer monitoring opportunities through the field ecology workshop.


“I wanted to provide a tangible connection with real volunteer experiences,” said Duff. “It will give them a chance to get involved and to have some sort of connection with ongoing projects that are happening in that community, so there’s potential to keep up with that work.”

Plans for the first day of the course this summer were derailed by thunderstorms. But that barely diminished the students’ excitement.

“The fact that our teacher was disappointed that we didn’t get outside on the first day is the best sign,” said Grant Wilkie, a senior enrolled in the course. He is excited to learn about new protocols and spend time outdoors.

Duff improvised during the rough weather and made it up to the students with a trip to the UW Arboretum at the end of the week to continue their study of plants.

“I think bringing students outside and allowing them to really engage with the material by doing projects that are hands-on and that provide data for conservation is really meaningful,” said Duff, “because they’re engaged in a real process. They’re part of it.”  

Students in a UW-Madison environmental studies field ecology workshopStudents photograph pollinating insects while exploring the Biocore Prairie in UW-Madison's Lakeshore Nature Preserve. 


The course was originally taught by Quentin Carpenter, a senior lecturer in environmental studies, with an emphasis on vegetation monitoring protocols. Duff wanted to build off Carpenter’s foundation.

“I found that very few students last year had much field ecology experience, so this layout is a test to see if studying different target organisms each week gives them a comprehensive picture of the diversity that occurs in field monitoring,” said Duff.

As a Nelson alumna, having earned a master’s degree in Land Resources in 2006 and a doctorate in Environment and Resources in 2014, Duff feels a sense of responsibility to teach in a way that inspired her as a student.

“My instructors have been extremely passionate about the work that they do and I’d like to pass that on to my students as well,” said Duff. “I want to inspire them and excite them about why we do conservation.”

All photos by Melanie Ginbsburg.