The Gordon Area also serves as an education resource for learning about the natural environment. Various research and instructional activities are performed within the Gordon area in order to provide students (and other visitors who are interested in ecology) a living example of how a dynamic environmental system functions.
Because the GNA possess so many different types of natural land types (including: old growth forest, high/low density wooded, wetlands, edge, and stream buffer areas), as well as all of the plant and tree species that are associated with these different areas, the GNA is a dynamic, living classroom for those interested in different aspects of the natural world.
Below, some of the faculty members that utilize the GNA present overviews of their research and teaching.
In my biology elective course, Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology (BIO 315), students make use of the GNA in several different labs. Early in the semester, students set up a seven-week leaf decomposition experiment to examine how different abiotic conditions in the GNA affect rates of decomposition. Students return to the GNA to collect data that allows them to determine how topography affects forest aboveground biomass and carbon storage. Later in the semester, students measure both soil carbon storage and soil respiration rates in different areas of the GNA. The class uses these data to assess the influence of different types of plant cover and associated microclimates on both parameters. Throughout the semester, students gain invaluable hands-on experience with the tools of ecological analysis in the GNA, and they have the opportunity to apply theories and concepts learned in class to datasets they've collected themselves. The application of knowledge within the context of a forest ecosystem that the students know well is incredibly helpful in bringing abstract concepts discussed in class into the real world.
Additionally, I have visited the GNA with my general education course, Humans and the Environment (SCB 102), to look at how many of the topics we explore in class play out in our own backyard. We discuss issues including biodiversity, food web dynamics, and non-native plants while looking at examples in the GNA. On these visits, students are often able to make connections to other forest ecosystems they've spent time in, and they are able to see concrete examples of human influence on natural ecosystems.
Over the past several years, I have worked collaboratively with both undergraduate and graduate students to carry out research in the GNA. Most recently, Biology undergraduate Alaina Bertoline completed a research project examining the influence of a power line right-of-way on forest ecological integrity. In the summer of 2014, Biology graduate student Dana Charitonchick used the GNA as one of her research sites in a study of soil seedbank dynamics in fragmented forest ecosystems of the Mid-Atlantic region. Biology graduate student Seth Keller also completed a research project in the GNA. He focused on quantifying above- and below-ground carbon storage in the forest as a way of assessing environmental services provided by the GNA. Students have presented their research findings related to the GNA at local, regional, and national conferences, helping to increase awareness of some of the challenges and opportunities associated with managing this forest.
Find out more about Dr. Schedlbauer: here.
Teaching Activities in the GNA
I use the GNA extensively in my teaching, especially for my field ecology courses (General Ecology and Vertebrate Ecology). Shown in the photo are students in Vertebrate Ecology measuring and weighing salamanders in the GNA. They will also process soil samples from the locations where salamander were present and absent, in order to determine preferences for substrate moisture. This study has been conducted every year since 1994, making it one of the longest-running studies in the GNA forested areas.
Research Activities in the GNA
Since 2006 my grad students and I have been testing and evaluating field methods for tracking populations of salamanders in the GNA. Our studies have focussed on novel designs for "coverboards," which are flat objects placed on the forest floor that tend to attract salamanders. Our most promising designs utilize a new material, Elephant Bark, which is made from recycled tires and is extremely durable. The photo shows an experimental array of 6 different coverboard designs. All are 16" squares of Elephant Bark, but they vary in thickness and in weight. The microclimate under the coverboards is being monitored by digital sensors wired to a data logger.
Find out more about Dr. Tiebout: here.
I use the Gordon Natural Area as a natural setting for teaching ecology and education course content and methods in classes I teach at WCU. For my Plant Communities (BIO 475) course, I introduce undergraduate and graduate students to various forest communities (ash, beech, and oak dominated) found at the preserve to learn tree identification and sampling methods, and to collect data on forest structure for analysis and interpretation skills development needed for research and ecology-related careers. In addition, students are able to learn about the natural history of many plant species, which is increasingly lacking in many ecological education contexts. In my Mycology course (BIO 454) I have students apply content and concepts learned in the class to the field. Students identify decomposer and mycorrhizal fungal sporocarps and habitats conducive to their growth. And in my Science Methods in the Secondary School course (SCB 350), I have students develop lesson plans and activities used for teaching middle and high school students in conjunction with natural history tutorials conducted at the preserve. Feedback from students regarding their learning experiences at the Gordon has been consistently positive, with most citing the acquisition of experimental design and field sampling skills useful in future career and research endeavors being the most notable benefits. I can think of no place better to teach ecology and science pedagogy as the Gordon Natural Area.
The Gordon Natural Area has provided me with many opportunities over the last several years to study questions related to mycorrhizal and community plant ecology. My research at the preserve has focused on two areas: (1) the influence of invasive exotic plants, like Garlic mustard, on ectomycorrhizae and (2) forest composition and structure. To date, I have mentored over 10 studies with undergraduate and graduate students that have resulted in many journal publications and presentations at regional and national conferences. These studies have yielded findings indicating that Garlic mustard reduces ectomycorrhizal abundance and species diversity on Red oaks, that exotic woody species and abundance have increased in forest habitats over several decades, and that some native hardwoods (like hickories and oaks) are still abundant, but aging, at the preserve. Currently I am mentoring student-based studies examining the effects of allelopathy (chemical competition) of the exotic invasive shrub, Amur honeysuckle, on the germination and seedling growth of hickory and oak species, with the goal of providing information on how this species may impact the regeneration of native hardwood species at the preserve and other regional forests.
Find out more about Dr. Turner: here.
NOTE: The GNA website is very much a work in progress. Please check back as we continue to update it.