The Bell Museum with grass and flowers in the foreground

Connecting Students to Urban Science: Developing curriculum for the Urban Long Term Ecological Research Program

Published08/11/2022 , by Emily Dzieweczynski

Environmental science is happening all around us—even in our urban cities and neighborhoods! On a new project called the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Area Long Term Ecological Research program (MSP LTER), dozens of researchers from the University of Minnesota, University of St. Thomas, USDA Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, and Water Bar, are coming together to study how urban stressors affect the structure and functioning of nature in the Twin Cities, including pollinators, urban forests, urban watersheds, and lakes and streams. They are also studying how residents of cities interact with nature near them, and how the benefits and risks of urban nature are not experienced equally by all residents. Their goal in this work is to better understand urban ecosystems, as well as the policies and practices that shape them, to improve environmental outcomes for all. 

The Bell Museum is the lead outreach and education partner for the MSP LTER, focusing on creating urban ecology field trip experiences for middle school students as well as supporting student learning and exploration in their own schoolyards. This summer, the Bell Museum in collaboration with the University of St. Thomas hosted Lauren Reuss, a middle school life science teacher from Benilde-St. Margaret. This summer, Lauren worked with Bell educators and MSP LTER researchers to develop new urban ecology lesson plans and resources that could be used on-site at the Bell and in classrooms throughout the Twin Cities Metro. 

Lauren Reuss holding up a butterfly

Lauren Reuss in the field

Reuss has been taking a hands-on approach to curriculum development. Periodically, she went into the field to work with researchers on the project. Since the MSP LTER takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying urban ecology, Reuss shadowed a variety of different research teams in the field—including the lakes and stream team, the urban contaminants team (who study squirrels and butterflies), and the pollinators team. She used these experiences to better understand what the researchers were doing (What kinds of questions they were asking? What tools and methods were they using? What kind of data they were collecting?) and to communicate that information back to the students.

Ultimately, Reuss decided to focus on the work of the group studying the differences between urban and rural squirrels, particularly what effects the urban environment might have on squirrel behavior. Squirrels are common in the urban environment and are easily accessible for students to study. After shadowing Charlotte Devitz, a graduate student in Professor Emilie Snell-Rood’s Lab, conducting field research with squirrels on the lawns of the St. Paul campus in July, Reuss was inspired to create a series of lessons focused on squirrel behavior and adaptation to the urban environment. In one lesson, students will study squirrel “boldness.” Students will collect real data on squirrels by conducting “flight initiation distance tests” at home, in schoolyards or nearby parks. These tests measure how close you can get to a squirrel before it runs away. Reuess hopes that by conducting this research, students will see clear patterns and will get excited about collecting and analyzing data. She plans to pilot these squirrel lessons—including one with her students on a field trip to the Bell—later this fall.

A researcher handling a squirrel

Charlotte Devitz handling a squirrel in the field

This work and the MSP LTER has a special place in Reuss’s heart. An environmental science major in college, she shared that it was nice to get back in the field doing science; sometimes teachers get rooted in the day to day—and it’s nice to remember what the big driving scientific questions are. Additionally, she particularly loves the MSP LTER because it can help us appreciate and notice what’s actually happening around us, in our urban environments. 

Lauren summed it up well: “It’s important to learn about the environment where students actually live, instead of viewing nature as just ‘wild’ places.”