Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

A Winter Field-Based Course on Limnology and Paleolimnology

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

A Winter Field-Based Course on Limnology and Paleolimnology

Article excerpt


The Union College (New York) course Lakes and Environmental Change balances the practical constraints of offering a field-based limnology / paleolimnology course during a winter term without the availability of a large lake or research vessel. Reliable ice conditions and an abundance of nearby small lakes assure a variety of candidate lake systems. Beginning with drainage basin analysis and progressing through water-column measurements, analysis of spatial distribution of surface sediment characteristics, and culminating with collection and analysis of sediment cores, this inherently interdisciplinary course ties together aspects of geochemistry, ecology, sedimentology, and physics. We compare two lake systems each year and in most cases the field and laboratory work represents some of the first limnologic work done on the lakes. Through this systematic framework for investigating each years lakes, the course resembles an authentic research project, rather than a series of unrelated lab exercises. Classroom activities consist of lectures and literature discussions divided about equally between limnology and paleolimnology. Lab exercises take place in the field, where students learn to use a variety of field gear, and in the laboratory, where students master techniques for sampling and analyzing sediment cores.


The Geology Department at Union College has adopted a hand's-on approach to teaching and most of our upper level courses fully integrate traditional teaching with investigative learning (e.g., Garver, 1992; Hollocher, 1994). These courses typically include term-long research projects that emphasize research design, field and/or laboratory components, and oral and written reports. The trimester calendar that we follow is ideal for field-based courses during the Fall (September-November) and Spring (April-early June) trimesters. However, it has been difficult to incorporate this approach to teaching during the winter term, when northeastern U.S. winters make traditional fieldwork impossible.

The course described herein differs from similar courses taught elsewhere in that this course relies on lake ice rather than a large research vessel as the floating classroom. Smith (1995) developed a course at Lawrence College to introduce students to basic limnology and oceanography, with an emphasis on geology and biology. This novel course was ideally suited for that institution because of its proximity to a large lake (Lake Winnebago, WI), and because the College had already invested in a large research vessel. Similarly, courses on basic limnology and oceanography are offered at Hobart and William Smith College, which is located on the edge of Seneca Lake, NY, and which also has a large research vessel. Inasmuch as Union College is not located near a large lake, and does not have access to a large research vessel, any introductory limnology course taught here would have to follow a somewhat different model than that developed elsewhere.

We developed our course Lakes and Environmental Change for three principal reasons: (1) it provides our students with an opportunity to do field work during the winter term; (2) it takes advantage of the abundance of nearby small lakes (Figure 1), one of which is chemically stratified (meromicticj, that are typically safely frozen during the Winter trimester at Union College (January-mid March); and (3) it is fundamentally interdisciplinary and incorporates aspects of geochemistry, ecology, sedimentology, and physics, and encourages students and teachers to break down the walls between traditional disciplines. The course has been taught by a single professor, and team-taught by as many as three faculty, which have included a geologist, a biologist, and a civil engineer. The course has drawn students from each of these departments.


The main objective of this course is to introduce undergraduate students to limnology and paleolimnology using an approach that resembles an authentic research project rather than a contrived series of unrelated lab exercises. …

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