Monday February 20, 2017

Exponential Growth

Enrollment in the University of Dayton's environmental biology degree program is growing faster than invasive honeysuckle. The program has doubled in size over the last two years to more than 40 undergraduate majors.

Program coordinator Ryan McEwan attributes the rapid growth to recent curriculum changes and a new focus on community and vocation. Previously, environmental biology required around 140 credit hours to graduate; now it’s 120 hours, mirroring biology and other undergraduate majors across the University.

“What we had to do is prune some classes across the whole curriculum,” said McEwan, associate professor of ecology, who became program coordinator in 2015.

The change offers more flexibility and makes it easier for environmental biology majors to study abroad, double-major and complete a bachelor’s degree in four years.

To build community among the majors, McEwan organizes events such as a fall mixer, a spring wildflower hike and a kayak trip. He also invites program alumni to speak with students about their occupational or graduate school experiences.

In addition, McEwan provides a bi-weekly email that lists available internships, graduate positions and job openings. He has brought community partners such as the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Five Rivers MetroParks and Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm to campus to discuss environmental biology careers.

“I am working to build a network of people who are interested in bringing on the next generation of people to work for them, and who are recruiting,” he said.

As a result of these changes the number of majors has doubled from years past.

The program launched in 1993 and is housed in the department of biology. It is based on the fundamentals of biology and ecology, and applies interdisciplinary skills, knowledge and principles to help address the world’s environmental issues.

Program alumnus Amy Hruska ’11 is a doctoral student at University of Hawaii at Manoa and a research assistant at the Hawaii VINE Project, which examines how non-native birds and rats influence seed dispersal of native and non-native plants.

Hruska, a plant ecologist from Cleveland, received a bachelor’s degree in environmental biology and a certificate in geographical information systems from the University of Dayton. She also holds a master’s in biology from West Virginia University.

“One of the nice things about UD compared to the two state schools I’ve attended, West Virginia University and the University of Hawaii, is the student-to-professor ratio and the opportunity you have to get involved in labs, get hands-on work and do independent projects,” she said. “I’ve found it’s harder for undergraduate students at other universities to find those ways to get involved.”

Hruska worked with McEwan during her junior year to set up an undergraduate research project that helped pave the way for her master’s thesis. She has returned to campus several times to mentor students, most recently in 2015 to speak at an environmental biology event.

“It is so great to hear about the changes that have been made to make the program more accessible,” Hruska said. “At the time when I took it, a lot of people were choosing biology over environmental biology because there was a high credit load. Now it is all even, and they have done great things to make it more interdisciplinary and engage other departments in the program.”

University sophomore Celia Montemurri is an environmental biology major from Royal Oak, Michigan. Last year, she worked in the research laboratory of Rachel McNeish ’11, who received her doctorate in biology in May 2016. Montemurri classified leaves and managed preserved insect samples for McNeish’s research on invasive amur honeysuckle and the impact of fertilizer runoff on stream and river ecosystems.

“I think my work in the lab has given me a leg up,” Montemurri said. “Last summer I had an internship with the Organization for Bat Conservation in Michigan as an education intern. We were educating the public about bats and why they are so important.”

This year, Montemurri is working in McEwan’s research lab, where she hopes to launch her own research project. In addition, she has applied for the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program, where she would work at research sites in the U.S. or abroad.

McEwan said experiential learning is key to the environmental biology program, which requires a three-credit hour internship, similar to the School of Engineering’s cooperative education program. He plans to revise an off-campus environmental instrumentation course to make it more overtly experiential.

“For many students, engaging in experiential learning, whether it is working in a research lab or being involved in an internship off campus, is the most exciting and impactful element of their UD undergraduate experience,” McEwan said. “Cultivating these opportunities is a key goal as we continue to expand and enrich the environmental biology program.”

For more information, visit the program’s website here >

- Dave Larsen, communication coordinator, College of Arts and Sciences

Image at top of page provided by Amy Hruska ’11.

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