Local Active Learning Opportunities Abound for PUC Biology Students

By Cambria Wheeler on February 10, 2014

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Students in the department of biology at Pacific Union College know they will encounter more than slides and lectures when taking a class from Professor Aimee Wyrick. Wyrick incorporates one-of-a-kind, hands-on learning practices in Napa County to her courses. These high-impact learning opportunities provide valuable experience while teaching important principles about stewardship of the created world.

Wyrick, a specialist in ecology, herpetology, and paleontology, partners with local landowners and organizations to provide opportunities to students in courses such as Ecology, Flowering Plants, and Conservation Biology. “Each quarter I have opportunities for students for internships, for research, for service-learning, and it’s not always in the same place or for the same organization,” she explained.

Wyrick is currently doing research on the Calistoga popcorn flower, a federally listed “rare” species that occurs in two locations less than twenty minutes from PUC in the town of Calistoga, Calif. Specially adapted to geothermal wetlands, there are about 5,500 plants on the two sites. She and the students are involved in getting baseline data on the plant; later, they will suggest small experiments and monitoring projects to maintain the plant’s population. “Nobody has done studies on this species of plant or a plant that lives in this sort of environment. It’s going to be providing a lot of really important scientific data,” Wyrick commented.

Studying the Calistoga popcorn flower also provides incredible opportunities for students to perform research on a site that has so far been untouched by scientists. “There are other geothermal sites in other places around the world, but to have it so accessible, so easy to get to, to have the buy-in from the landowner and the permission to work there, to have the excitement of our local Fish and Wildlife officials, and to have the opportunity for our students twenty minutes away makes this a truly fantastic site,” said Wyrick.

Angelo Maniego, a 2013 graduate of PUC, agrees. Maniego assisted Wyrick in surveying the site and collecting data. “Professor Wyrick’s dedication to the project has taught me to value my work and to have pride in the research,” said Maniego. “I also learned the importance of being descriptive and precise in taking data. Overall, I have grown to appreciate flowers in a different light.” Maniego, who is pursuing post-baccalaureate studies at California State University East Bay in preparation for dental school, gained more than course credit for his research. “Being part of this project during my last quarter of undergrad completed my experience at PUC. It was a fulfilling and exciting achievement. Not only did I gain a first hand experience of research but I also got to enjoy the views and outdoors of Napa,” he concluded.

Students in Wyrick’s courses and the student-led Biology Club have also been involved in several restoration projects at Lake Beryessa, just east of the College’s location in Angwin. Wyrick has developed partnerships with both the Federal Bureau of Reclamation and a local non-profit, Tuleyome to replant native trees, shrubs, and grasses at locations around the lake. Through these service-learning opportunities, students gain knowledge about the local natural environment and how to preserve it. “Initially, some of the students were a little not-so-excited about it. Then they get out there,” said Wyrick. “When we have a group of 5 or more, within 2-2.5 hours they can actually see the difference they have made. I have had so many students say ’Wow that was so cool.’”

Students don’t just plant native flora, they also remove invasive plant species. Wyrick is a member of the Linda Falls Preserve Committee, which makes recommendations to the Napa Valley Land Trust about the management and needs of the preserve. Her classes have done a survey for invasive species within the reserve and a stream survey for aquatic insects. “This information doesn’t yet exist, and the students were out there doing it for labs. The students were getting actual experience that we will use to create a report that we turn over to the Land Trust so now they have this data for Linda Falls. It’s a win-win-win situation!” Wyrick exclaimed.

PUC’s location in Napa County makes these incredible opportunities possible. “I tell my students all the time: it’s incredible, here we are in Napa county, which is one of the most diverse geologically, botanically, within California, which is one of the most unique in the world, and we just go out the door and here we are,” said Wyrick. “The things that I’ve done and that we’ve been involved in can certainly happen elsewhere, but here it’s in spitting distance, you drive at most twenty minutes.”

“Care for the created world is a core value at PUC, since it expresses both gratitude for God’s good gifts and the stewardship that we urge students to practice in all areas of their lives,” shared Nancy Lecourt, vice president for academic administration. “These active learning projects not only reinforce this core value, they are shown by extensive research to improve deep learning by engaging students, both ‘hand and heart’ in the curriculum.”

“In the long run, I think these are practical skills and practical knowledge for bettering our world,” concluded Wyrick. “Doing these sorts of environmental or ecological projects is really long-term, and they really have an effect. And we get to do it right here in our back yard.”