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Learners of all kinds roll up their sleeves for work at supersites

US students plant seedlings at a revegetation plot at the DRO (Photo by Cassandra Nichols)

Scientists at the Daintree Rainforest Observatory (DRO) are used to working with students and interns – and now they are extending their outreach to schools.

The first group of highschool seniors, students of Melbourne’s Carey Baptist Grammar School, will spend time working at the DRO, which is part of the TERN Far North Queensland Rainforest Supersite, during a 10-day field trip in July.

DRO site manager Mr Peter Byrnes said they hoped it would be the first of many trips from the school.

‘They plan to establish a long-term program to monitor seedlings along two transects at the site, to study seedling survival and growth. They’ll survey birds. And they’ll also go up in the canopy crane and take plant cuttings to mount and press for our collection and for their own herbarium. That will hone their plant identification skills,’ Peter says.

The students’ work will form part of the ecological monitoring data for the site, so it will contribute to the supersite’s work with data stored on the Australian Supersite Network Data Base and publically available on the TERN Data Discovery Portal.

The DRO will also host eight undergraduate student groups (with 20–40 students in each) organised by the American Universities International Program, which has a five-year agreement with the DRO to establish and monitor a revegetation plot. Students measure tree height and diameter at breast height over the plot and get experience on the canopy crane.

Eighteen hundred kilometres south, the Queensland University of Technology includes work at the Samford Environmental Research Facility (SERF) as part of the science undergraduate curriculum. SERF is part of the SEQ Peri-urban Supersite. The site manager is Ms Michelle Gane.

‘Last year, they learnt how to trap small mammals, survey birds, conduct nocturnal surveys and set pitfall traps. This is the third year that undergraduates have undertaken a survey and the small-mammal dataset they have created is used in the supersite monitoring program, so the students’ work helps them and us,’ Michelle says.

The facility has also hosted undergraduate research projects on fire and seedling survival; on assessing weed distribution and density; on how the size of patches of forest contribute to predation of birds’ eggs; and on lantana. SERF and the supersite have been home to several international student researchers as well.

At the Calperum Mallee Supersite in South Australia, the Australian Landscape Trust (ALT) runs extensive educational activities, which involve all sorts of learners from primary school kids, to university students and graduates, to Rotarians.

Dr Peter Cale, the senior ecologist at the ALT at Calperum and nearby Taylorville Station, said the program benefited everyone involved.

‘Our whole purpose is educating the public,’ Peter says.

‘The people who come here learn about various land-management issues, and add depth to their theoretical knowledge by getting their hands dirty with reveg, weeding and other work. The trust learns the best ways to do things, so we can offer best-practice solutions to problems; and we get thousands of hours work done that we couldn’t afford otherwise. And TERN can disseminate its learnings in concrete ways that are relevant to contemporary land management. This puts their knowledge in a working context.

‘We’re elevating the quality of the information we have from the Calperum supersite to give to the community.’

Increasing the capacity of scientists and land managers is a theme at other supersites, too. The Litchfield Savanna Supersite hosts an annual field trip of students in Charles Darwin University’s Earth Systems and Remote Sensing studies. Dr Tim Wardlaw and others at the Warra Tall Eucalypt Supersite in Tasmania are setting up a research project with the Forest Education Foundation that will see highschool students using dendrometer bands to monitor tree growth, weather and climate. A research site in Wombat Forest, part of the Victorian Dry Eucalypt Forests Supersite, hosts a field subject on forests, carbon and climate change taken by Masters students in environmental studies from the University of Melbourne.

The isolation of some of the supersites makes it difficult for all of them to play a direct role in building the capacity of future ecosystem researchers and land managers. However, the development of an education portal and real-time data feeds from the supersites will help them engage the next generation of environmental custodians and researchers.

Published in TERN e-Newsletter April 2013

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