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Fire effects on soils: A capstone course in environmental sciences.
Zabinski, Cathy*,1, Zimmerley, Sara1, Wraith, Jon1, 1 Montana State University, Bozeman, MT
ABSTRACT- We developed a capstone course in environmental sciences with the main objectives of 1) applying classroom-based knowledge to real world problems relating to regional and national land management issues; and 2) incorporating experiential learning, problem solving, and collaborative multi-disciplinary group work. Land Resources and Environmental Sciences is a multi-disciplinary department, and students are trained with a strong background in environmental sciences, including soils and land rehabilitation. We worked with land managers from the Helena National Forest (southwestern Montana) to identify areas of research related to ecosystem response to wildfires that could potentially inform land rehabilitation strategies post wildfire. Students sampled soils from severely burned, moderately burned, and unburned areas at the Cave Gulch Fire site, which burned during the summer of 2000. Soil nutrient status, arbuscular mycorrhizal infectivity potential, mycorrhizal colonization levels, soil microbial community structure, and seed bank density and composition were analyzed from samples collected across three burn severities at two sites. Students worked in pairs, and learned new laboratory and greenhouse techniques relevant to their research questions. Additionally, students practiced presentation skills with repeated short presentations and written summaries of published literature relevant to fire impacts. The culmination of the course was a one-hour presentation attended by faculty, students, and land managers from the Helena and Gallatin National Forests. Students also prepared a final report that incorporated their combined data and some suggestions for application to land management issues. The enthusiastic cooperation of Forest Service managers was essential to the success of the course, as it increased motivation by students to be well prepared for the presentation of their results.
KEY WORDS: capstone course, fire ecology, environmental science education, soil disturbance