Centre students contribute to prairie restoration project at Shaker Village
In the eyes of many, experiential learning is the next great frontier in higher education, and Centre College is on the leading edge of this movement. Thanks to a $500,000 grant the College received last year from the Louisville-based James Graham Brown Foundation to support academic internships and community-based learning initiatives, these high-impact practices are allowing Centre’s faculty and staff to expand the student learning experience like never before.
Matt Klooster, Director of Community Service & the Bonner Program and Assistant Professor of Biology, is teaching a course in conservation biology this semester, and his class has partnered with Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Mercer County, Ky., to provide students with an opportunity to work on the historic landmark’s prairie restoration project by reintroducing an endangered species to the area.
According to Klooster, the restoration is a tripartite project.
“Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) has grown tons of [a native species] called ‘running buffalo clover,’” Klooster explains. “Shaker Village was able to acquire more than 500 plants from EKU, then we’re actually putting them in the ground.”
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this species of clover may have depended on bison to periodically disturb areas and create habitat, as well as to disperse its seeds. As bison were eliminated, vital habitat and a means of seed dispersal were lost. The 1000-acre prairie restoration project at Shaker Village is reintroducing an endemic species into areas where they would experience the same type of disturbance, such as on horseback riding and hiking trails.
This boots-on-the-ground approach expands and enriches the students’ classroom experience.
“As a professor I found it really ungratifying teaching a highly applied discipline sitting in the classroom using PowerPoint slides,” Klooster says. “I have taught this course three times, and this is first time that I’ve had the opportunity to get students out of the classroom and into the natural environment; to show them how to use these applied concepts in the real world.
“I think it’s been an extraordinary opportunity to explore the material they’ve learned in class in a very applied setting,” he continues. “In just a couple of hours out in the woods we’ve covered a number of topics of discussion that we had covered throughout the term in class, and they started to see in a real-world setting the value of learning those concepts.”
Junior biology major Daniel Wicker agrees.
“The opportunity to work with Shaker Village was valuable in the context of applying what we have learned in class,” Wicker says. “One of the topics we have discussed this semester is how species can go extinct and how the variety of ecological interactions that take place can have a major impact on the fitness of a population.
“While Dr. Klooster has done an excellent job providing us with case studies to contextualize some of the more complex concepts we have discussed in class, conducting field-work and spending time with a biologist at the level of expertise of Dr. Klooster was an eye-opening experience,” he continues. “Even though the primary objective of our trip was to introduce running buffalo clover to the Shaker Village prairie area, Dr. Klooster was able to teach us so much more about the ecosystem and the different plants that were in the area. We learned more about plant ecology and the natural habitat that surrounds Kentucky in one two-hour trip than we could have learned in a week of lecture.”
As Centre College continues to explore and develop an appreciation for experiential learning opportunities, Klooster anticipates that these kinds of activities will grow in frequency and impact on the students.
“Many professors are only now beginning to explore the usefulness of experiential learning tools, and I’m finding this to be a very gratifying opportunity I’ve provided to the students.”
by Cindy Long