Vol. 5, No. 2: Fall/Winter 2009

A Repository of Natural Processes

by Jeremy Shere

The 1,500 acres of fields, forests, wetlands, ponds, and lakes that make up IU’s Research and Teaching Preserve present ample opportunities for pedagogy beyond the classroom.

A professional biologist for more than 30 years, Keith Clay has spent a lot of time outdoors among flora and fauna. As director of the IU Research and Teaching Preserve, he’s intimately familiar with Indiana’s natural topography. Yet Clay is routinely surprised by what he finds in the field.

“One time I was walking with some students down a path in a valley and we heard a sort of plaintive mewing, like a kitten crying,” recalls Clay, a soft-spoken man in his mid-50s. “We looked around and saw a baby mink or maybe an otter—a tiny creature that apparently had been separated from its mother. It was kind of heartbreaking, and we’re wondering, what should we do? In the end, we decided it was best to let nature take its course.”

For Clay, the story is a pertinent—if sad—example of the Preserve’s rich biodiversity. “I’ve explored most parts of the Preserve,” Clay says, “but there are still animals and plants I’ve never encountered. And when I do, I’m always amazed.”

Although IU acquired the land that today makes up the Preserve over many years, thanks largely to the efforts of legendary IU president Herman B Wells, it was only in 2001 that the IU Board of Trustees officially established the Research and Teaching Preserve. Today it consists of seven sites totaling approximately 1,556 acres: Bayles Road, Bradford Woods, Griffy Woods, Kent Farm, Lilly-Dickey Woods, Moores Creek, and the Morgan-Monroe State Forest AmeriFlux Tower.

Bayles Road includes open fields, agricultural land, and pockets of forest, wetlands, and small ponds used primarily for experiments with grasses and trees bred for carbon sequestration. Bradford Woods contributes a stream and forest, as well as lodging and dining facilities. Consisting largely of hilly forestland and including University Lake, Griffy Woods butts up against the City of Bloomington’s Griffy Nature Preserve.

Kent Farm’s fields and forest feature a diverse landscape, from creek bottom to ridge top. Lilly-Dickey Woods is the largest of the Preserve sites, and is used as a botanical and artistic preserve. Moores Creek consists of pristine, undeveloped forest. The Morgan-Monroe State Forest (MMSF) AmeriFlux Tower allows the study of carbon exchange between biosphere and atmosphere.

In establishing the individual sites as a formal preserve, IU has set these lands aside, banning development or alteration of any kind. Consequently, the Preserve is an invaluable resource, especially for faculty and students in biology and other sciences. “The Preserve is for us [biologists] what the Cyclotron is for physicists, the observatory for astronomers,” Clay says. “It’s a repository of natural processes, not just of organisms but also what they do—photosynthesis, decomposition, predator-prey interactions. It’s all here.”

The Preserve has been a boon to researchers such as Luke Flory, an ecologist who got his Ph.D. in biology at IU (working with Clay) and has stayed on as a postdoctoral researcher. “The Preserve is extremely valuable as a research tool because it’s so close to campus, has a variety of habitat types, and has limited access for the public,” says Flory, whose research focuses on invasive plant species.

Other researchers, including faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates, use the Preserve for a wide variety of projects, including interactions among groups of bacteria collected from soil in Moores Creek, the life cycle of nematodes (roundworms), and the invasion of foreign plants such as Japanese stiltgrass that crowd out Indiana native species.

For teachers and educators, the Preserve presents ample opportunities for pedagogy beyond the classroom. Biology students especially, Clay says, must literally get their hands dirty out in the field, sampling, measuring, and handling the plants and animals they study. Plus, the Preserve allows for direct observation.

“Say you’re teaching a class on ornithology [the science of birds] and you’re talking about a family of birds and describing their bill size and range using PowerPoint or on the blackboard,” he says. “Out in the Preserve you can say, ‘there’s one right there!’ And students can actually see how it flies, how big it is, how it captures insects.”

The Preserve also hosts informal courses open to anyone. Last fall, volunteers taught the rudiments of fishing at a Learn to Fish workshop. Also this past fall, in a workshop called “Attack of the Alien Invaders!” Clay took participants on a tour of Griffy Woods and around Bloomington to learn about invasive plants species. “The goal was to educate people about how plants from other places can take over, and how to take better care of native species,” says Jenna Morrison, a graduate student in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) who works at the Preserve as a graduate assistant.

But as valuable as the Preserve has been as a research and teaching tool, until recently, its sites didn’t provide much in the way of infrastructure or technical resources such as shelters and work stations. That changed this past April with the completed construction of a field lab in Griffy Woods. Located behind the IU golf course, the 6,000 square foot building is IU’s first Silver LEED-certified building. (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. A Silver certification means that the structure receives between 50 and 59 of 100 possible points awarded for environmentally sound features.) The field lab will serve as a home base for students and faculty doing research in Griffy Woods.

“Before, if you needed lots of water or a place to store samples and other materials, you were stuck,” Clays says, as he shows me around the lab. “Now that we have the lab, it’ll make everyone’s job much easier.”

Thanks to an open floor plan, the building’s several lab and classroom spaces are bathed in natural light. Every feature—from water-saving toilets to triple-pane windows that let in light but not heat (and open to help ventilate the building and allow for cool breezes) is carefully planned to integrate the lab seamlessly into its natural surroundings. A small solar panel on the roof generates enough power to heat the building’s water, while special gutters direct rainwater into a basin behind the lab to prevent it from gushing into the surrounding forest and eroding soil.

For postdoctoral researcher Angie Shelton, who studies invasive plants, the field lab is a great resource. “I’m coming to love it already,” she says. “I need to take several hundred gallons of water into the forest to tend the plants we’re observing, and it’s hard to do that without a place to get the water and a vehicle to take it out into the woods.”

For teachers and students at all levels, the lab provides unique learning experiences. Instructors can have students bring specimens from the field directly into several lab spaces for analysis and experimentation. A large, open classroom illuminated by natural light allows for more traditional instruction.

“It’s a versatile building that can be adapted to all sorts of uses,” Clay says. “Whether you’re teaching a class or doing research, the field lab is a great resource.”

To expedite forays into Griffy Woods, the lab has its own golf carts available for researchers. But otherwise, traffic is kept to a minimum. Students and faculty walk, bike, or carpool.

“We want to keep the Preserve in as natural a state as possible, despite the new building,” Clay says. “That’s important because it’s really the only place where students can study nature that’s not been disrupted by human development. Many university science departments have divorced themselves from natural settings, retreating to indoor labs. We’re lucky to have such expansive outdoor spaces to study natural ecosystems.”

Jeremy Shere is a freelance writer in Bloomington.

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