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Into the Woods and into the Future at Field Station

The University of Cincinnati Center for Field Studies recently received a National Science Foundation grant, and high-tech expansion is planned for the former Shaker farm in Miami Whitewater Forest.

Date: 11/19/2012 12:00:00 AM
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577

UC ingot   A short drive away from the shadows of skyscrapers dozens of stories high but under the same cloud-pocked sky you’ll find a bucolic scene that appears to stretch back through centuries.

With a quick look you’ll see historic white farm buildings, ancient trees gently waving in the wind and acres of Mother Nature’s purity, beckoning you to breathe deeply and embrace a simpler world.
Faculty and students are able to conduct research that can’t be duplicated on an urban campus at the University of Cincinnati Center for Field Studies.

If you look closer, you’ll also see any number of advanced research experiments and get-your-hands-dirty field courses taking place in the meadows, streams and woods. Because it’s here that the University of Cincinnati Center for Field Studies (UCCFS) calls home.

In 2008, UC opened this research station partnership with the Hamilton County Park District on what used to be a Shaker farm amid the 4,000-acre Miami Whitewater Forest. Since then, countless faculty and students have visited the station to conduct the kind of work that just can’t be duplicated on an urban campus. And they’ve come from a wide array of academic disciplines – anthropology, archaeology, biological sciences, DAAP, environmental studies, geography and geology.

David Lentz, professor of biological sciences in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences and executive director of UCCFS, says the center also serves as a gateway to a place some students have never been: the heart of an Eastern deciduous forest.

“We have students who have never been out in the woods before, and they’re fearful,” Lentz says. “The field station gives them an experience that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And a lot of times it’s an inspiring experience where they learn to not fear nature but to gain a curiosity about it.”

Now the center is on the cusp of providing a new level of research and educational opportunity. Lentz recently announced that the center has been awarded a facilities grant from National Science Foundation (NSF). Through this grant, UCCFS will add automated weather stations; a sonde water quality sensor; improved computer systems and Internet connectivity; and a high-tech sensor array surrounding the grounds to record and relay in real time various environmental data. The grant will also help purchase equipment for a new UCCFS building that will house an archive and be used as a classroom and laboratory.
Numerous field courses take place in the meadows, streams and woods at the UCCFS.

Aside from the structural improvements, there are other positives to look forward to thanks to the help from NSF. The center is now included within the NSF field station system, a nationwide network of research centers. Lentz also expects that once the upgrades are complete, UCCFS will be sharing a vastly broadened range of data which could lead to increased attention from other premier scientific organizations such as the National Ecological Observatory Network.

“The NSF recognized what we’re doing, and they’re saying ‘We’re going to invest in what you have,’” Lentz says. “All that data that we’re going to be collecting will be available not only to our scientists, but scientists throughout the world.”

Others have recognized what’s happening in Miami Whitewater Forest, too. Lentz says the regional community has embraced the center as a convenient outpost for a variety of projects. For example, the volunteer-run Saturday Stream Snapshot initiative brings water samples from the Great Miami River to the station for chemical analysis.

“Every month, we get hundreds of people who come to the field station and bring their bottles of water,” Lentz says. “It’s very heartening to see there are so many people who care about their communities. I think we’ve made a lot of friends by reaching out to them.”

Meanwhile, the center continues to have a profound impact on UC students and faculty. Assistant professor of biological sciences Regina Baucom uses the station extensively in her US Department of Agriculture-supported research on the common morning glory, and two of Baucom’s graduate students are conducting research there as well.
The UCCFS is housed on land that used to be a Shaker farm.

Assistant professor of biological sciences Ishi Buffam also uses the UCCFS as a teaching site and for a major part of his research. Buffam and his students have used the center to run several experiments on the effects of vegetated roof characteristics on runoff water quality and quantity. Buffam pointed out that these projects will provide practical information for the City of Cincinnati and other municipalities interested in reducing storm water runoff and improving surface water quality.

Buffam likes the combination of dedicated space for setting up field locations, supporting infrastructure and proximity to UC’s main campus, and says it makes the center an extremely valuable asset.

“The UCCFS has been one of the most useful resources I have found here in my two years at UC,” Buffam says. “I look forward to using it even more in the future, especially as the infrastructure is further improved.”

Lentz hopes other scientists feel the same as Buffam.

“We’re hoping this will be an attraction that will bring in scientists from all over the world,” he says.

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