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Biodiversity Blog


BFL to the Rescue: Helping Instructors Teach During a Pandemic

 All lined up and ready to learn. (Photo: Larry Gilbert)

It’s a hot late August afternoon. Classes have started for UT students, but this year things look a little different. Fifteen minutes from campus, at Brackenridge Field Lab (BFL), ecology students stand ready, six feet apart, notebooks in hand, masks covering their mouths and noses. Dr. Larry Gilbert, professor in Integrative Biology and Director of BFL, stands apart from the group, megaphone in hand as he teaches his Ecology Laboratory course (BIO 373L).

This is just one course of others being taught this semester at BFL during the pandemic. Currently, undergraduates cannot do hands-on research in an indoor lab, so outdoor educational settings provide the ideal place for social distancing as well as reducing aerosol transmission of the virus. With ample space, field labs like Brackenridge and Stengl Lost Pines provide alternatives for students to continue their studies in the natural sciences.  

Faculty are making use of BFL in the scramble to meet new educational needs and realities. For Dr. Alex Wild, who teaches a field entomology course (BIO 453L), he combines online lectures with outdoor labs. In addition, he schedules optional evening and Saturday sessions at BFL for students to collect specimens.

Dr. Kay McMurry teaches Field Biology (BIO 208L) this semester, employing a hybrid of weekly Zoom lectures with outdoor labs at BFL. Students can conduct independent research projects here and use the online maps and species lists at the field lab’s website. “I feel very fortunate that we have the resources at BFL available,” Dr. McMurry says. “Having labs at BFL makes it much easier to meet in person while following the safely practices that are so important right now.”

To meet the needs of teaching in the field, Dr. Larry Gilbert and his teaching assistant, Christopher Peterson, have upgraded tools for plant identification for their Ecology Laboratory course. There are 74 new plant ID stations at BFL with each focus plant marked in orange. These plants are mainly trees and shrubs that would be long term occupants of the sites. Eventually other plants within 2-3 meters of the station (including grasses, herbaceous dicots, ferns, and nearby woody plants) will be identified and listed in the database for each station, each with an accompanying photo album that will be continually updated (https://photos.app.goo.gl/FiwXnxygaHeWiaZt8). Meanwhile, Peterson has created a Google Map of plant ID stations. With these tool, students and teachers can walk the roads of BFL and use their phone to check the ID of the focal plant. Not only does this allow the student to use everyday technology, but it also allows each student to learn the flora while staying a safe distance from others.

Dr. Robert Jansen teaches Plant Systematics (BIO 463L), and usually in the past, he would arrange four field trips, only one of these being to BFL. He would provide vans for students’ transportation, but the social distancing requirements of this pandemic has stopped this. However, with BFL so close to campus, Dr. Jansen arranged for students to have all of their field trips here this semester as transportation options were safer. “A major part of my course,” Dr. Jansen states, “is for students to make a plant collection of 25 specimens from at least 15 different families of flowering plants. Without BFL, it would not be possible to teach my course during these times.”

Rain, shine, or mud: classes take advantage of outdoor shelters like these at BFL. (Photo: Larry Gilbert)

An outdoor teaching shelter was quickly erected by Dr. Rob Plowes’ team to provide 20 work-tables under a canopy. With the demand for this outdoor teaching space, another canopy will be needed. Students can safely access the teaching area and outdoor habitats without congesting the research lab hallways, and learning about nature in an outdoor setting seems well,...natural. 

The ability to continue in-person field classes this year at BFL will also allow students to continue a long tradition of contributing data for ant and plant biodiversity surveys. BFL has almost 20 years of detailed information from each semester. There is no better time like the present for students to start an independent study as a component of a field class like Biol 373L. Since 2000,  BFL has nearly 400 of them, many worthy of journal publication. Papers resulting from these projects can be seen here

In addition to students who are biology majors, other students from Engineering and Environmental Science conduct individual and team studies at BFL. The wide outdoor spaces allow them to set up biodigesters and wind turbines or conduct detailed studies of different habitats.

With a doubt, enclosed spaces like classrooms and indoor labs are a challenge to educators and students to sufficiently meet their learning goals under COVID-19 limitations. But a university that has a field lab or two, like UT does, provides safer alternatives for a more hands-on experience with environmental and biodiversity education.

 In the field. (Photo: Larry Gilbert)


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