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Multidisciplinary ecology – teaching using GIS. William J. Cromartie NAMS Richard Stockton College PO Box 195 POMONA NJ 08240 Email ABSTRACT.

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multidisciplinary ecology teaching using gis

Multidisciplinary ecology – teaching using GIS.

William J. Cromartie


Richard Stockton College

PO Box 195



  • With support from the National Science Foundation, Division of Undergraduate Education, Stockton College’s Environmental Studies Program has developed a set of core courses that use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as an integrative tool to teach basic ecology along with physical geography and environmental issues. These courses include ongoing field studies that show how biological and physical data are combined to understand environmental processes. Students in ecology lab choose one of several continuing projects to work on throughout the term. Among these are studies of shrub stem demography in burned and unburned sites, shrub-layer phenology in uplands and lowlands, effects of past land use on vegetation on the campus, and colonization of litter of different trees by soil macroinvertebrates in uplands and lowlands. Automated monitoring stations located in oak-pine upland and Atlantic white cedar lowland sites provide data on weather, light, soil temperature, soil moisture, and groundwater levels. Students collect data using Global Positioning System (GPS)-datalogger units, allowing direct input into GIS. Course materials, including an introductory manual for GIS, are included on the Environmental Studies website
environmental core curriculum
Environmental Core Curriculum

Labs progress through the core sequence from analyzing simple data (Geography) to designing parts of continuing studies (Ecology) to individual student projects (Issues). Students see the same types of spatial data at each level.


Campus GIS Database

Link to GIS website:

These data, along with county and state-level data are

accessible in the GIS

laboratory in ArcView

and ArcInfo

monitoring stations http www stockton edu cromartw iligrant ilihome htm
Monitoring Stations
  • Three remote monitoring stations have been established on the campus, one (Kennedy Farm) is in an open old field site.
  • One is in an oak/pine upland forest, and one is in an Atlantic white cedar lowland swamp (shown).
  • All three sites are equipped with Campbell Scientific CR-10 dataloggers, with sensors attached to monitor a range of environmental variables.
monitoring station plan
Monitoring Station Plan

Not shown are soil moisture and soil temperature sensors placed with litter bags at two sites for each station


Physical Geography Lab

Laboratory Purpose

Measuring, monitoring and analyzing weather, soils, floral and hydrologic parameters.

1) field techniques

2) map & atlas analysis techniques

3) remote sensing - GPS (Global Positioning Systems) and monitoring stations

4) computer analysis - Spreadsheets and GIS (Geographic Information Systems).

List of Laboratory Exercises

Environmental Field Work I

Netscape Exercise

Spread Sheet Analysis

Introduction to Topographic Maps

Map Data Acquisition

Global Positioning Systems (GPS)


Aeration Zone Hydrology

Environmental Field Work II

Water Budget Calculation

Relation of present vegetation to past land use on campus

Demography of shrub stems in disturbed and undisturbed sites: control-burned vs. unburned plots.

Phenology of Pine Barrens shrubs in relation to weather and habitat

Aquatic organisms, especially plankton, in Lake Fred

Litter decomposition and fauna in upland and lowland sites

Spatial pattern of trees

Ages of trees in pine forest

Populations of Quercus in upland sites

Aquatic macroinvertebrates in streams

Lichen distribution

Bird (or squirrel) utilization of upland and lowland habitats

Photosynthesis in shrubs

Topics for Ecology Lab ProjectsDetailed information at:
projects 1998 1999
Projects 1998-1999
  • The following are samples from student projects in the Ecology Lab, spring semester, 1998 and 1999.
  • Detailed results of most projects can be found at
  • An MS Word version of many of the final papers from 1998 is available as Stocktonia at the same site
impact of controlled fire on demography of shrub stems
  • Patterns of shrub stem growth, survival and reproduction in controlled-burned and unburned upland environments.
  • Individual plots (mostly lowbush blueberry and huckleberry) have been marked in two sites: an unburned oak-pine forest and an adjacent tract of forest controlled burned in spring 1998.
  • Plots are sampled for shrub stem biomass, stem age and stem survival.
litter decomposition litter fauna
  • Decomposition of different litter types in upland and lowland environments.
  • Forty-eight litter bags, made of fiberglass window screening, in two sites: an oak-pine forest and an Atlantic white cedar swamp.
  • There are three bags of four types of litter at each of two locations at each site.
  • Each site has two moisture sensors and a temperature sensor monitored continuously by the Campbell CR-10.
phenology of upland and lowland shrubs
  • Patterns of plant growth and reproductive activity in upland and lowland environments. Possible long-term effects of climate change
  • Individual clones of several shrubs, including highbush blueberry and huckleberry have been marked in two sites: an oak-pine forest and an Atlantic white cedar swamp.
  • Each site has air temperature, relative humidity, rainfall, photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), and soil moisture and temperature sensors.

1998 Results

  • In the beginning weeks, the vegetation growth was
  • following the regular phenophases for all four shrubs.
  • In late March, temperatures rose considerably above normal for about a week
  • This elevation in temperature advanced the shrubs phenology in the uplands.
  • The lowland bush however, did not experience the
  • advancement.
  • All shrubs in the upland area, first grew leaves then
  • following, flowers.
1999 results
1999 Results
  • Blueberries flowered much earlier last year than this year.
  • This could be due to the greater accumula-tion of growing degree days and a higher total precipitation.
  • Average temperature was also slightly higher.

1999Both species grew quicker in length in the transitional area.

Blueberry buds in this zone averaged 2mm longer than the buds in the other sites.

effect of past landuse on modern vegetation
Effect of Past Landuse on Modern Vegetation
  • This project is intended to study whether past landuse is a good predictor of current vegetation when other environmental factors, such as soil type are the same.
  • We are investigating areas of Downer soil type on the Stockton Campus.
  • We hope to compare our results to those of Motzkin, G. et al. 1996. Controlling site to evaluate history: vegetation patterns of a New England sand plain. Ecological Monographs 66: 345-367.
1998 group 5 the mystery of the white oaks
  • Discrepancy Observed Only For White Oaks
  • 100% White Oaks Alive In Plowed Area
  • 16% of White Oaks Alive In Unplowed Area
1998 group 5 the mystery of the white oaks 2
  • Average Diameter For

Live White Oak:

11.9 cm

  • Average Diameter For

Dead White Oak:

9.9 cm

  • Percentage of Oaks Found In The Plowed/Pine Area:


  • Percentage Of Pines Found In The Unplowed/Oak Area:



1999 Soil Pits

  • For determination of plowed/unplowed soils, the soil horizons were examined.
  • If unplowed, there were distinguishable A and E horizons.
  • Plowed soils had mixed A and E horizons .
  • Soil pits were dug about one foot deep and three feet wide.
the plankton of lake fred
The Plankton of Lake Fred
  • What are the differences in plankton species and abundance, based on samples obtained from the spillways at four separate locations on Lake Fred.

Key Methods

  • 100 - 200 liters of lake water were filtered through a plankton net into a 20ml vial, or samples were obtained by scraping submerged plants or other objects
  • pH, water temperature, and site conditions were recorded at each site
  • Samples were brought back to lab and preserved with Lugol’s solution
  • Species were then identified using a compound microscope
student response
Student Response
  • Student comments suggest that the lab projects are very demanding, especially for those who have jobs
  • The most frequent difficulty is students who desert their lab partners, or don’t carry a fair share of the work. Lab groups are required to maintain worklogs and to report problems as they come up. Serious offenders are asked to either drop the course or take incomplete grades and make up the work
  • Students commented most favorably on the mentors, students from previous years who assist students, sometimes with continuation of the projects they worked on
  • Surveys before and after implementation of this project show increases in students’ perception that working with spatial data helps them understand environmental problems, in their overall satisfaction with the methods used in the core courses and in their sense of being prepared for advanced work
  • Versus conventional labs, students show an increase in self-reliance and initiative in solving problems in the project-based lab
  • Gains in analytic abilities, ability to design experiments and to critically review others’ work are more modest
  • Quality of the projects is showing a gradual increase as students build on past work, but only when the instructor maintains steady pressure to do so. Otherwise, students tend to ignore previous results
  • Technical skills with hardware such as GPS and software, including GIS, are not acquired in a single-semester lab. With three core courses combined, a majority of students do achieve competence during their undergraduate careers. Many go on to specialized courses in these techniques and use them in advanced research projects
  • Many students value formal presentation of their projects as preparation for jobs and graduate school and see GIS and other software as a way of producing professional-quality work
next steps ecology lab
Next Steps - Ecology Lab
  • Increase the number of mentors available to help students with fieldwork and data analysis
  • Help students analyze previous results in preparing their proposals and reports. Involve students in follow-up to improve quality of the data and presentations and to extend the results through independent study
  • Use the database functions of GIS to tabulate and analyze results, especially in the landuse and plankton projects. Improve use of monitoring station data in litter decomposition and phenology studies
  • Develop a garden of cloned blueberry and huckleberry shrubs at the Kennedy Farm monitoring station/arboretum site to provide phenological reference plants
  • Make greater use of Geographic Information Systems in the classroom portion of the course, to help students see how to think about spatial data
  • Besides the National Science Foundation, I would like to acknowledge the support of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics of Stockton College and of the Environmental Studies Program, especially Drs. Claude Epstein, Ray Mueller, George Zimmerman, John Sinton and Weihong Fan
  • We received invaluable service from Dr. Bruce Grant of Weidner University and Dr. Karen Kemp of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis during this project
  • Without the tireless assistance of James Grant, the monitoring stations would still be in their shipping cartons
  • Finally, I wish to thank the students in ENVL 2105, who were hardworking, endlessly patient and generally enthusiastic through all phases of this project, 1996-1999