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W&L's Marsh Receives NSF Grant for Undergraduate Collaboration in Research

David Marsh, professor of biology at Washington and Lee University, has received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a new project that will link networks of undergraduate classes to carry out collaborative scientific research.

The project is titled “Toads, Roads and Nodes: Collaborative Course-Based Research on the Landscape Ecology of Amphibian Populations” and will recruit ecology and conservation biology classes to research how habitats affect amphibian populations.

Marsh will work in collaboration with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The total amount of the NSF grant is $242,000 (W&L’s component is $113,000) and was received through the Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science program.

Several years ago, Marsh created the model of using networks of undergraduate students to advance science by using existing data. He will use his sabbatical during the 2012-13 academic year to set up the project, and W&L students in his biology class will participate during the 2013-14 academic year.

“The NSF really likes this model because it’s very interested in knowing how students’ involvement in research, and particularly highly collaborative research like this project, enhances their interest in science,” explained Marsh. “A lot of students have this perception that science is for people who like spending days alone in their lab. But in fact science is becoming increasingly collaborative with large teams breaking up projects into smaller pieces and then all working together.”

The project will involve a range of schools, including community colleges, public research universities and historically minority-serving universities, and will take place during W&L’s winter term. “That’s the time when it’s very difficult for conservation biology classes to get outside and do hands-on field projects,” said Marsh. “So these data-based projects provide a really nice way for classes to get involved in actual research during a time when they can’t go outside and count things.”

Marsh said that the project will use a database from the United States Geological Survey on where amphibians are found. The database contains 10 years of data from a volunteer initiative to find amphibians using night-time call surveys. The data will be divided among different regions of the country and classes will sign up to be assigned several wetlands to research. W&L classes will partner with about 10 other classes to analyze data on amphibian populations throughout the eastern United States.

Students will match the data on where certain types of amphibians are found to various changes in the landscape using Google Earth. Their aim will be to understand how loss of forest, loss of wetlands or increased road traffic, for example, explain where amphibians are still doing well and where they are disappearing.

“We can also see historical photos of the sites and how the landscape has changed in the last several decades,” Marsh noted. “We’ll get a nice understanding on a very large geographic scale about what major factors affect where amphibians live in the United States. So we’re augmenting the main database of the National Geological Survey by adding all the landscape data, and we’re also going to get some real scientific research out of it.”

Marsh explained that amphibians are considered valuable ecological indicators because they are found in both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. “A lot of times, when you start seeing negative things happening in the landscape you might see it first with amphibians,” he said. “On the positive side, where you see improvements in environmental quality, that’s often associated with amphibians returning to sites. In eastern North America, we’ve had many areas with increased forest cover in the last 100 years and we have some species of amphibians coming back as a consequence.”

Each class will carry out the research during a six-week period. Then an instructor and two students from each class will attend a workshop in Santa Barbara where they will put all the data together and analyze it as a group.

On the educational research side, the project will carry out surveys before and after the project to gauge the students’ attitudes towards science and will also track the students throughout their majors. “We’ll also compare groups of students who were interested in the project but didn’t take part, versus groups of students who did get involved in the project,” said Marsh. “That way we can look at how their attitudes have changed as a consequence of their involvement in collaborative scientific research as opposed to just a regular classroom experience.”

The project is jointly funded by the NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences: Division of Biological Infrastructure, and the Directorate for Education and Human Resources: Division of Undergraduate Education, as part of their efforts toward the program Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education.

Marsh, a member of the Washington and Lee faculty since 2000, received his B.A. from the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis.

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Sarah Tschiggfrie
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