Capstone Research Project: Holocene History of Estuarine Environmental Change

Michael Savarese
Florida Gulf Coast University
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This is a collaborative, semester-long research project that students conduct as their capstone activity for the course. The project is designed to be comprehensive and apply numerous concepts, topical units, and methodologies from the course.

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The course in which this capstone project is implemented is an upper-division, elective course for undergraduates majoring in Environmental Studies, Marine Science, and Biology (FGCU does not have a Geology Major) that is taught once every two years (titled: Geobiology). The course focuses on the applications of paleontological data to problems in those disciplines. It is applicable for any college-level audience enrolled in a course in paleontology or paleobiology.

Each time this course is offered, the students collaborate on a semester-long capstone research project that applies paleontological techniques and concepts to some problem associated with environmental management and restoration. Because my research interests are focused upon Greater Everglades' restoration and the history of Southwest Florida estuaries, the project is typically associated with the historical record of estuarine environmental change through the middle and late Holocene with hopes of using that information to either identify pre-altered conditions (for defining restoration targets) or to predict future environmental conditions (as effects future global climate and sea-level change). The project employs multiple topical units covered throughout the course and requires some field and much laboratory time. The project culminates with the class co-authoring an abstract and poster that is either displayed at our institution's Research Day or at a Southeast Section G.S.A. meeting.

In the course's most recent offering (fall, 2008), the project concerned the history of environmental change seen within a ~ 1000 year old oyster reef located in an estuary at the mouth of Shark River Slough, the main flow-way of the Everglades (i.e., the mouth of the "River of Grass"). The study's premise was that the oyster reef presumably recorded the history of freshwater delivery into this estuary and may have documented the anthropogenic alteration of freshwater flow.

This specific project was site specific and depended upon materials collected at a specific geographic location. However, the concept of orchestrating some project involving environmental management could be applicable to any course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

To conduct a semester-long project students must master and then apply each topical unit upon which the project depends. Consequently it's important to schedule each portion of the project in concert with the course curriculum.

For the Fall, 2008 project, students applied their knowledge from a sedimentology and stratigraphy course (taken by most students the previous semester), and from the following topical units in the paleontology course: taphonomy, paleoecology, paleoenvironmental interpretation, and taxonomy and systematics.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is designed as a culminating project.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

For the Fall, 2008 project specifically:
1. To assess taphonomic state or taphonomic grade.
2. To relate taphonomic grade to environmental energy and time of exposure.
3. To describe fossil assemblages and use the assemblage constituents to infer paleoenvironmental conditions.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

For any capstone project associated with the course in any semester taught:
- Conduct a complete scientific investigation.
- Hypothesis generation and testing / testing of competing hypotheses.
- Making predictions followed by comparison of data against predictions.
- Analysis of data.

Other skills goals for this activity

- Students prepare an abstract and a poster for presentation at a scientific meeting.
- Students work collaboratively to complete all aspects of the project.

Description of the activity/assignment

Students conduct this investigation collaboratively and with minimal guidance from the instructor. Students are presented with the research problem at the start of the semester, typically within the first week of classes. Soon after, a class-wide discussion is facilitated through the posing of some preliminary questions. Eventually and within the first few weeks, students outline a project design and methodology for implementation in the field and laboratory. Along the way and as project-pertinent topical units are covered, students are given journal articles to read that might further their thinking about the project, might present some appropriate methodology, or might serve as a model investigation.

Field work is accomplished early in the semester and with minimal time invested. Because scheduling field trips that can accommodate everyone is difficult, the field experience is optional. In these situations, someone chronicles the field work with either a digital still camera or digital videocamera and then these are shared with everyone in the class.

All aspects of the project are collaborative; students collect and share data, prepare and share figures and tables, and collectively prepare the poster and abstract.

The following files are uploaded as supportive teaching materials:
1. Geobio Research Project Description F08.doc: This is the project overview that is distributed to students as a handout at the start of the semester.
2. Geobio Research Project Qs.doc: This set of questions is distributed early in the semester to spark a discussion and to aid in the design of the project.
3. Geobiology GSA SE 2009 Abstract.doc: This is a copy of the abstract that was submitted to the 2009 Southeast Section Geological Society Of America meeting in St. Petersburg.
4. Geobio GSA SE09 Poster.ppt: A copy of the poster presentation given at the 2009 Southeast GSA meeting.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students outline the project's design and methodology and these are critiqued and subsequently improved. Each student is required to write an independent abstract near the project's completion; these are graded. The best abstract produced by the class is used as the rough draft for the abstract that is ultimately submitted. Students break up into small groups to prepare different portions of the poster.

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