Biology Students Use Westover Woods as Outdoor Laboratory
One of the School’s best “laboratories” is the Westover Woods – the acres of forest that border the eastern edge of the campus and surround the Westover Pond. That was evident when Biology classes spent two days in “Forest Camp” during the spring term, with students taking part in a variety of activities – creative writing, community service, data-gathering, and other means of exploring and experiencing nature.
The Forest Camp has been an evolving part of the Biology curriculum for many years. Teachers Alice Hallaran and Torey Olson organized this year’s programs, with assistance from faculty colleagues Heather Mannella Nuzzo ’91, Terry Hallaran, and Christopher Sweeney and from Westover Archivist Muffie Clement Green ’65.
The camp began in the afternoon on Sunday, April 28th, when students were assigned to small groups in different parts or the woods. The first assignment had a more literary than scientific flavor: “We read poetry about nature, and then discussed them,” Alice explained. The works included poems by Robert Frost, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Philip Larkin, and Mary Oliver and essays by Howard Nemerov and Loren Eiseley. The students were then invited to “find your own piece of the forest” and write a poem about what she observed that might inspire her. Students then gathered back together and were free to share what they wrote with the group.
Next, the groups then spent the rest of Sunday afternoon in a community service project. Torey accompanied a group of students to the Bent of the River Audubon Center in nearby Southbury, where the students released trout fingerlings into the Pomperaug River. The trout had been hatched from eggs that students had cared for in a special tank in Westover’s Biology laboratory since last fall. This is the second year in a row Westover students were involved in the trout release program, which is coordinated with Trout Unlimited. After the students released the young trout, they seined the river bottom to gather and examine invertebrates that live there.
Another group of students, led by Terry, spent their afternoon removing invasive Knotweed and False Bamboo from Westover’s Woods, while Alice worked with another group of students removing algae from the Westover Pond, which had flourished this spring as a result of unseasonably warm temperatures and nutrient-rich water entering the pond. A fourth group of students traveled with Chris to White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, where they also removed invasive plant species and helped repair trails.
That evening, the students gathered to share their afternoon experiences and then watched a documentary about the work of famed naturalist Jane Goodall and her research involving African chimpanzees. The point was made that our evolution is marked by our once being a tree-dwelling species in terms of both our physiology and behavior. Before the film, students were asked to note similarities and differences in chimps and human structure and, while watching the film, the ways in which the behaviors of chimps and humans are similar and different.
On Monday, April 29th, the Biology students again divided into groups in the Westover Woods for additional workshops, with each group of students rotating through the workshops over the course of the morning.
Two of the workshops focused on the artistic elements found in nature. Muffie led a workshop on environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, who uses objects found in nature – leaves, branches, rocks, feathers, ice, and other natural materials – to fashion ephemeral works of art. The students then found their own natural objects to fashion their own Goldsworthy-style artwork. Meanwhile, Torey presented “Up Close and Personal,” a workshop in which students selected a tree in the woods and, inspired by their observations, created a poem, song, or a story about it.
The other two workshops presented a more scientific focus. Alice led a workshop on laboratory techniques and how to estimate the age of trees, while Heather offered “Clues to the History of the Forest,” presenting methods on how to identify ways in which the woods have evolved over time.
On Monday afternoon, the students were divided into research teams who were assigned to different quadrants of the Westover Woods, “where they identified, measured, and mapped all the trees in their area that were over 10 centimeters in diameter,” Alice explained. The students then enter all the data they have gathered into computer records. Each group, using data on frequency and size of trees, indicated the dominant tree species in their quadrant. Over the years, the data collected by successive years of Biology students have resulted in a series of scientific snapshots of the changes in Westover’s Woods.