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A hands-on environmental education

By Lara Palmquist '13
November 8, 2012

Professor of Biology and Curator of the Natural Lands Kathy Shea (left) oversees the St. Olaf Student Naturalist Program, which this year employs (from left) Emma Cornwell '13, Rozlyn Anderson '13, Kirsten Maier '13, and Andrew Kaul '13. Photo by Will Lutterman '15

Their work space spans more than 350 acres of restored habitat, their tasks include conservation and ecological research, and their coworkers share a passion for environmental education.

They are the St. Olaf College student naturalists.

The St. Olaf Student Naturalist Program, created by Professor Emeritus of Biology Gene Bakko in 2000, employs up to four students each year who are responsible for conducting research, furthering conservation efforts, and providing environmental education opportunities. The program is now overseen by Professor of Biology and Curator of the St. Olaf Natural Lands Kathy Shea.

This year's student naturalists include Rozlyn Anderson '13, Emma Cornwell '13, Andrew Kaul '13, and Kirsten Maier '13. They each bring to the position previous experience in the St. Olaf Natural Lands and an enthusiasm for the outdoors.

"Through research last summer I gained knowledge about native plant and animal species and experience in restoration work," says Cornwell. "I am excited to now share my knowledge and enthusiasm about the great resource St. Olaf has in the Natural Lands."

The St. Olaf student naturalists maintain the Bluebird Trail, a path with 64 nest boxes. This one was captured by Nicky Church '13 as part of a natural lands photo contest that the student naturalists organize each season.

Environmental education
The Student Naturalist Program extends the opportunity for outdoor exploration to the entire student body.

"I think the most important aspect of the student naturalist position is the service we provide as ambassadors between the natural lands and the St. Olaf community," says Kaul.

Throughout the year the student naturalists host events ranging from prairie seed collections and buckthorn pulls in the fall to snowshoe hikes through the natural lands in the winter to weekly phenology walks through the prairie and woods in the spring.

"The events are a way to educate students about the ongoing work involved in conservation," says Cornwell. "They encourage students to invest in the long-term success of the forest and prairie restoration efforts on campus."

This year's naturalists are also providing students of Northfield's Open Door Nursery and Greenvale Elementary Schools with monthly instruction on basic ecology and field trips to the natural lands. 

Ecological research
Each year the student naturalists also contribute to the long-term research and conservation projects that take place on the St. Olaf Natural Lands.

This year Cornwell is conducting research on St. Olaf farmland that will earn her academic credit. Under the guidance of Shea and with assistance from Maier, Cornwell is investigating the optimum input of nitrogen fertilizer. The goal is to find a level that maintains high crop yields and avoids overuse of chemical additives in agriculture.

This year's student naturalists will undertake additional research and conservation efforts throughout St. Olaf's restored forest and prairie. Within the on-campus Big Woods forest, the naturalists will study the rates of early tree growth, the composition of forest flora, and the impacts of herbivory on vegetation.

The sun hovers over the St. Olaf Natural Lands in a photo taken by Nicky Church '13 as part of a regular contest organized by the student naturalists.

On the St. Olaf restored prairie land, the naturalists will maintain the Bluebird Trail, a path with 64 nest boxes that offer habitat and protection for native birds threatened by increasing urbanization. The nest boxes provide the student naturalists with the opportunity for long-term population studies, housing an average of 70 bluebirds and more than 150 tree swallows and house wrens each year.

The trail doubles as an avenue for the campus community to engage in the natural lands. To facilitate self-guided tours of the prairie, this year's student naturalists plan to create informational signposts for the walking paths that will combine modern technology with ecological education.

"The signs will have QR codes people can scan with their phones to bring up further information on the natural lands website," says Cornwell.

When the student naturalists are not conducting research, overseeing conservation efforts, or providing educational events, they attend to a variety of weekly responsibilities and maintenance work in the natural lands. This includes applying herbicide to invasive weeds, updating a student naturalist board for public information, and writing articles for the St. Olaf Biology Department's monthly publication, Biomass.

Future plans
Following his graduation in May, Kaul hopes to apply his experience in preserving an endangered biome to a career in conservation work.

"The skills that I develop through the Student Naturalist Program, such as organizing events, communicating scientific ideas to a general audience, and carrying out land maintenance duties, will make me qualified for a naturalist position after I graduate," he says.

Both Maier and Anderson likewise plan to apply their naturalist experience to careers in environmental and outdoor education.

While Cornwell is unsure of her specific plans for the future, she recognizes the value of the skills the Student Naturalist Program provides.

"The program will give me knowledge and leadership skills that will be applicable no matter what I decide to do," she says.

The satisfaction the student naturalists get from their work is equally long-lasting. "It's exciting to play a role in restoration efforts on St. Olaf land," says Cornwell. "I hope to come back in 20 years and see the trees that I planted." 

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or