Often, the most memorable learning experiences happen not in a classroom, but in the midst of real-world struggles and triumphs. That’s why the college’s Conservation Management Institute (CMI) works to provide out-of-the-classroom opportunities to students.

Last winter, as a result of the college’sa budding partnership with the Morton and Spapperi Family Foundation, Emily Hutchins, the college’s chief advancement officer, saw an opportunity.

Hutchins, who is a volunteerr for the New River Land Trust, helped connect the trust with CMI and the foundation, which is interested in suppring undergraduate research. The trust then identified Betty Hahn, a local landowner who wanted to make improvements to her Ellett Valley farm. The connection ultimately led to a project in which students from the college conducted on-the-ground research that will help Hahn make informed decisions about the future management of her property, which is under a conservation easement.

The four students from a range of majors — Deirdre Conroy and Jessica Fitzpatrick (wildlife conservation), Marissa Hahn (environmental resources management), and Jack Reaume (geography) — began by discussing their work with Hahn and her husband, Doug Chancey. Using the landowners’ goals as a starting point, the students designed research projects based on their own interests, which ranged from bat occurrence and diversity to water- quality testing. “The students were great,” Hahn said. “They took the project very seriously, but they also seemed to have a lot of fun.”

Juvenile newt
Betty Hahn’s property supports a wide range of plants and wildlife, including this eastern newt in its eft (juvenile) life stage.

The students worked under the guidance of CMI Research Scientist Verl Emrick but were free to choose their own projects. "It's one of the most important things I've done in school," said Fitzpatrick. "I can now say that I've worked independently, designed an experiment, supervised others, and worked with multiple species."

The students worked with Emrick and other mentors from CMI throughout the summer, implementing their projects and analyzing data. In spring 2018, the group will present their findings at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. "It gave the students a wide variety of real-world experiences," Emrick said. "There are a lot of good students out there, but many don't have hands-on experience, so this will give them an edge."

The research opportunity was made possible through a generous gift from the Morton and Spapperi Family Foundation, established in 2015 by Kent Morton and Julie Spapperi-Morton.The foundation works to initiate and participate in projects designed to preserve, enhance, and restore land to greater ecological value and to support education in the sciences and engineering. The foundation worked with college leadership to determine where its support might be most needed.

“We wanted to make sure we were supporting students through undergraduate opportunities and providing them with skills that will translate from education into the workplace,” said Julie Spapperi-Morton. “The college was wonderful about listening to our interests and making sure our goals were met. It’s been a great partnership.”

Added Marissa Hahn (no relation to Betty Hahn), "I have learned more than I ever though I would through this experience. It has enhanced my love for our natural world and solidified that this is what I want to do fo the rest of my career."