Service learning to save the planet

UC Clermont students help restore and protect local wildlife

For Emily Cochell, a biology graduate from the University of Cincinnati Clermont College, finding a full-time job with a company invested in sustainable practices was at the top of her wish list.

“Human impact to the planet affects everything: Sea-level rise, ocean acidification, urban heat islands, saltwater invasion of fresh water, air and water pollution, and ecosystems moving northward due to the warming of the Earth,” Cochell said. “It's important that we as a species have the time, energy and health needed to allocate our thoughts to changing for the better rather than just getting by.”

Cochell’s passion for environmentalism was reinforced by one college experience in particular — Assistant Professor Danielle Winget’s environmental studies courses. The two classes focus on different ecosystems, geology and climates, as well as the effects of human activity on nature. But Winget doesn’t contain her teaching to the classroom; her students engage in service learning projects throughout the Southwest Ohio region, bringing these large lessons to life.

This past April, Winget’s students ventured to the Edge of Appalachia, a 20-000-acre wildlife preserve in West Union, Ohio, managed by the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Nature Conservancy. There, students learned firsthand about land management from park biologists, cleaned out woody brush from a prairie habitat and, most importantly, assisted with a project to identify and take a census of rare green salamanders. In Ohio, the reptile lives only in a particular type of rock habitat that occurs in the preserve and is notoriously elusive.

“We found a number of juvenile and adult salamanders, which is important because it means the population is diverse enough to reproduce,” Winget said. “Once we know what’s there, we can decide what wildlife we want to encourage. These projects also help us find out what was in Ohio before colonization, because the area has been largely untouched by farming.”

Past projects have included land management at the Cincinnati Nature Center, planting flowers with the Ohio Veterans Home in Georgetown, Ohio, and work with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden to tag monarch butterflies and restore native grasslands to the zoo’s Bowyer Farm property in Warren County.

For Winget, a microbiologist and former research scientist, sharing her passion and knowledge for the environment with students is a dream job. She said experiences like Cochell’s are common, and students earn service learning credit as well.

“Students get very motivated once they take this class,” Winget said. “The material helps students learn how they can make a difference in their communities. They learn the places to go and meet the people who are doing the work so they can co-op, volunteer or work with them in the future.”

Cochell is now a project engineer in training at Airgas in Cleveland, creating and installing bulk systems for atmospheric gases, and said the company’s commitment to sustainability played a crucial part in her decision to work there. And at home, Cochell has integrated more sustainable practices into her daily routine, including driving less, taking shorter showers, recycling more often and cooking at home versus ordering takeout.

Winget said those types of changes — at the personal and commercial levels — are spurred by education and are critical to making real progress against climate change.

“It’s a recognition that understanding the environment is about more than just biology or ecology — there are lots of economic and political components too,” Winget said. “It’s more than just the science; it’s the implementation of the science that’s important if we are going to make real change.”

For more information about environmental studies or service learning available to students at UC Clermont, contact Danielle Winget or Krista Clark.