by Cecilia Vigil, DVM
Every institution of higher education speaks of their undergraduate research programs, but the reality is that Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) is living it. With science classrooms that are capped at 32 students and curricula that are embedded with active learning projects, most biology students at TMCC get to experience undergraduate research. We are fortunate to have a positive climate at TMCC. Our president, Dr. Hilgersom is very supportive of faculty innovation in creating these unique opportunities for students.
One recent opportunity has been for students to work on a project sponsored by the Nevada INBRE Program. Biology students are working on creating a baseline of biotic and abiotic conditions at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, best known for its dog park and balloon festival. These students are researching what species live in the park by capturing them with photo or sound through an app known as iNaturalist (iNat). They also collected entomological specimens using nets and other similar devices, and botanical data by method of line transects; students also collected and analyzed abiotic materials in the form of soil and water.
TMCC Biology Professors Megan Lahti, Ph.D. and Cecilia Vigil, DVM are the leads of this project, which consists of hosting a live “Ecoblitz” event at Rancho San Rafael Park where biotic, abiotic, water and soil samples are gathered within a 24-hour period. The first EcoBlitz took place on May 7, 2021, and the second on Oct. 1, 2021. The event was attended not only by TMCC students, but also other TMCC faculty and staff, and community members joined as citizens of science.
Everyone’s participation was facilitated through the iNat app, which is a social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity. In this case, the app will help to manage the specimens collected during both EcoBitz events across the 5,800 acres that comprise this park.
While the park closes down during the night, the 24-hour observation requirement of an EcoBlitz was fulfilled by strategically placing wildlife camera traps throughout the park, which provided data on species’ locations, population sizes and how species are interacting (even with us humans). We also placed echolocating devices to capture the presence of any bat species in the area.
The success of this research project was immediately apparent: over 300 people participated in each season, and made over 2,000 seasonal observations recorded on iNat. TMCC students are now working on analyzing soil, water, and identifying insects and other data collected over the course of these two days.
The curricula developed by Drs. Vigil and Lahti incorporated the soil and vegetative transect project analysis, and their students are already learning the correlation between these two aspects, observing distinct zones of sage, grass, forest, and wetlands in the park. These zones vary not only due to the soil and water in each area, but also due to clear seasonal distinctions that are being analyzed as statistically relevant.
We plan to continue working with students on this project biannually, and collecting data that can be utilized for park management. Additionally, over time the data will be used to observe any variations given the current climate change our planet is experiencing, while giving students the opportunity to practice the concepts learned in class, to develop other undergraduate research projects, and most importantly, to invite the community to work side by side with our students as citizens of science.
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