By Eric Foster
In a move that wouldn’t have been possible without integration, five Commonwealth University faculty members, representing Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield are collaborating to create a Watershed Ecology Center. In addition to creating a resource to help preserve Pennsylvania watersheds, this Center of Excellence expands students’ research opportunities and career networks.
“About five years ago, we were noticing a bit of burnout in the students who were not getting to do what they wanted for careers related to water, water conservation and ecology in general,” says Dr. Steven Seiler, professor of biology at Lock Haven. “So, we developed coursework and did a lot of small research projects with freshmen and sophomores, that would continue until the time they graduated, just to get them excited, engaged, and retained. We like to include students on our research projects with agencies and conservation groups like Trout Unlimited and the PA Fish and Boat Commission to build connections to future job opportunities.”
Seiler was joined in his efforts by Lock Haven biology colleagues Drs. Heather Bechtold and Daniel Spooner. With the integration of Bloomsburg, Mansfield, and Lock Haven as Commonwealth University, they were joined by Dr. Steven Rier, professor of biology at Bloomsburg, and Dr. Gregory Moyer, associate professor of biology at Mansfield. In addition to representing a variety of campuses, the faculty bring a variety of specializations to the Center. Bechtold specializes in contaminants and algae, Rier specializes in algae and microbial ecology; Seiler is an expert on fish and invasive species; Moyer focuses on fish and conservation genetics; and Spooner is an expert on freshwater mussels.
Water ecology is particularly relevant to Pennsylvania. “Pennsylvania has the second highest density of streams in the entire country next to Alaska,” says Rier. “And there’s a range of conditions of the streams — from super pristine and rich to systems that have been seriously impacted. We’ve got this natural laboratory right here. We can not only do research and understand it better, but we can also educate our students so they understand how ecosystems should work and how humans have impacted them.”
“The idea is to give students experience with hands-on skills so that they are easily employed,” says Dr. Bechtold. “Before they leave our campuses if they have experience electroshocking or taking water samples, or if they know those sorts of methodologies, agencies are going to scoop them up real fast.”
“Once students have their own kind of projects and participate in these research activities, there’s more buy-in from the student in terms of their own education,” says Spooner. “I have students who I’ve done research with and now they find really interesting articles and bring them to me. They own their own science.”
In addition to involving students in research on their home campuses, they also envision having students work together across campuses, particularly during summers. Dozens of students are involved in research courses and projects at each campus every semester. Faculty have begun interacting with students across campuses.
“Steve Rier had me join a committee for one of his master’s degree students,” says Bechtold. “That’s an opportunity for me to help shape the student’s project and get involved in the creeks and streams near Bloomsburg.”
“Connections and networking are an important part of getting a job,” Bechtold added. “With our connections across the three institutions, we have a large network where we can place students. We’ve tripled the network of any given student on any given campus. We can let our contacts know about our students, what their interests are, and they will get hired.”