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April 20, 2011

CONTACT: K.E. Schwab




SRU students ‘Ecosystem’ students get hands-on learning


SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – Students in Paulette Viola’s “Natural History of the Ecosystems” graduate and undergraduate classes at Slippery Rock University have been up to their hips in swamps, creeks, open fields, and snow, as well as up the proverbial tree as part of their out-of-classroom learning experiences this semester.

            “The overall concept is environmental improvement within their major,” Viola said. Most of the students involved are park and recreation/resource management or environmental science majors.

            “Nearly 50 students are involved in projects each year,” she said. “That means there are now literally hundreds of projects undertaken by SRU students across Pennsylvania and in a number of other states.” She has been assigning projects for more than 10 years.

            Students in Viola’s class pick their subject and then go through a pre-approval process, including submission of a contract outlining the scope of the work involved.

“The student must work with an appropriate agency, conservation organization or a private landowner. Once approved, they have to research the species they are working with or the environmental topic. They have to do a site analysis and get approval before implementing the final project,” Viola said.

            Once the project is completed, the student must submit a paper reflecting on the project’s success, or failure, and what steps might be taken to continue the project or improve it for the future, she said.

            “One of the reasons for undertaking the assignment is to simulate some of the jobs the student might be actually doing when they find a job in the field. It is great hands-on experience. Some students get to work with professionals who are already doing the job they are interested in, so that gives them a closer look at their potential job,” Viola said.

            Students are required to submit a letter of completion from the agency they are working with, including their assessment of the results.

            “The student finds there is a lot of critical thinking involved in their project. Some students find it difficult because it requires them to take the initiative to find and research a project, to network with those already in the filed and it requires higher-order thinking skills to come up with the appropriate activities and to see them through to completion,” she said.

            This semester the projects have been as varied as the students in the class, she said.

            “Brett Shockley, a parks and recreation/environmental education major from Laurel, Del., studied air quality at a chicken ranch. The farm raises between 20,000 and 25,000 chickens for a major poultry supplier, but has a large amount of ammonia, nitrogen and phosphoric acid, resulting in poor air quality near the ranch. His research looked at ways to deal with it using natural systems,” Viola said.

Over the years, out-of-state student projects have looked at managing invasive plants and other evolving environmental topics.

            Other projects undertaken this semester by SRU parks and recreation/resource management majors include:

  • Andrew Line from Boiling Springs set up a wood duck box in a creek near his home;
  • Brittney Schmidt from Volant removed shrub the prairie at the Jennings Environmental Education Center to help maintain the habitat for the massasagua rattlesnake – an endangered species;
  • Jason Cote from Butler cleaned and repaired bluebird boxes at the Jennings Center.
  • Shane Brinkley from Kane constructed a squirrel box at the Jennings Center, then placed it some 25-foot up a tree.
  • Tyler Keyes from West Chester Kane repaired tree swallow boxes at Moraine State Park;
  • Shane Stinedurf from Martinsburg took constructed a kestrel box for placement on private property;
  • Brady Hess from Mt. Wolf erected a wood duck box in a marsh area near Keister Road
  • Cody Metro from Kitanning installed a barn owl box at Crooked Creek State Park;
  • Dan Brophy from Franklin worked on banding turkeys with the Pennsylvania Game Commission;
  • Dale Kaufman from Somerset spent time working with Boy Scouts in Somerset to help them earn their Mammal Merit Badge;
  • Doug Ringer from Wampum placed northern flicker boxes along North Country Trail and Game Lands near Wampum;
  • Garrett Murphy from Butler placed northern flicker boxes on private property;
  • Mike Kuzar from Butler installed a bird feeder at the Tom Ridge Environmental Education Center in Erie;
  • Quinn Conlon from Roaring Spring, built and placed a bat box near Raystown Lake;
  • Rand Burridge from Parkesburg built a barred owl box;
  • Jevin Hoeper from Cincinnati, Ohio, built a pileated woodpecker box for Moraine State Park;
  • Scott Walton from Havertown placed fish habitat structures in a local pond.
  • Jason Fillhart from Cranberry Township, used his skills as a tree trimmer to clear areas near DuBois to protect a hooded merganser nest box; and
  • Rebekah Watson from Grove City focused her attention on the cotton-tailed rabbit by constructing a brush pile the rabbits may use for habitat at the Slippery Rock Campground.


Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania’s premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.