News Archive

posted 10/01/04

Through Ants and Plants, CU Undergrads Explore the Frontiers of Science
In Columbia’s First Science Core Curriculum, Undergrads Collect New Biodiversity Data, One Square Meter at a Time

First-year Columbia University students sift through debris looking for ants during a Frontiers of Science Field experiment in Morningside Park.

Eight first-year Columbia students picked through leaf debris in Morningside Park. “There’s one!” Columbia student Zach Gray went after the ant with the tube end of his aspirator, a small device that allowed him to suck the fleeing insect harmlessly into a vial.

This field ecology experiment is a part of the Frontiers of Science class being taught in part by Don Melnick, Director of the Center on Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), and Distinguished Professor of Conservation Biology. “Scientists think about the world in a different way, like poets think about the world differently,” said Melnick. “This class is aimed at showing students the various ways that scientists try to understand the world around them.”

This is the first time in the history of the University that a science course has been taught as part of the core curriculum. The idea for this core course was conceived of twenty years ago by Professor David Helfand, co-director of the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory and chair of the Department of Astronomy, and during the past two years, the course went into major development. Last year Columbia University's Committee on Instruction approved a five-year trial period.

James Danoff-Burg, associate research scientist at CERC and professor in the E3B department, designed and is coordinating this enormous logistical operation – training five hundred and fifty undergrads to collect data about urban biodiversity that has never been collected before. “You are doing real science and are collecting real data that will be used to answer real questions,”  Danoff-Burg told the students during their fieldwork orientation.

The data collection was broken down to its simplest unit. One team of students examined one square meter of urban parkland, and recorded the types of ants and plants found. They then repeated this at a different spot within the same park. Each team used a Pocket PC to record the information, which was downloaded later to a central computer.This was replicated by 130 teams, each with four to five students.

An ant collected by a Frontiers of Science student, seen here through a microscope. “You are collecting real data that will be used to answer real questions,” James Danoff-Burg, told the students during their fieldwork orientation.

Scientists hope the data will answer larger questions: Does the shape of the reserve affect its biodiversity in urban settings? Does the amount of biodiversity change if one is closer to a manmade divide, like a path or a road, versus being in the interior of the reserve?

“I can’t believe they trust us to do this,” said John Tarim, a first-year Columbia student and non-scientist. He knew that these data were “live,” and were going to be provided to graduate students and other organizations for use in biodiversity analyses of Manhattan. It was also the first time data of this sort were being collected on such a grand scale.

“Organizations like the New York City Parks, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and the Wildlife Trust are very interested in these data for answering questions about biodiversity,” Danoff-Burg said.

This course is a collaborative effort between all the science departments and will be subjected to an evaluation process by students and a committee of faculty who will discuss what worked and what didn’t work about the course.

Some of the biggest names in science at Columbia University are lecturing this fall for the course – Wally Broecker, Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Don Melnick, Distinguished Professor of Conservation Biology, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology; Donald Hood, James F. Bender Professor of Psychology at Columbia University; and David Helfand, co-director, Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory and chair, Department of Astronomy.

“At Columbia University, we have senior scientists, conducting research at the forefront of their fields, and that’s what these first-year students are learning,” said Melnick. “You can’t get that in books nor in most universities.”

“It's more fun than I expected,” said first-year student Rick Taddonio, who showed up to the field experiment wearing the recommended sun hat. “I have no interest in science. But this class is holding my interest.”

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.