Dr. Smith leads her class on a Fall 2009 research excursion at Le Moyne's newly purchased reservoir
When a mathematician or a software engineer thinks about “complexity,” they may envision streams of equations or program code. For Le Moyne College’s Dr. Sherilyn Smith of the biological sciences department, complexity is a concept illuminated in wonderful ways by phenomena not nearly so abstract, and indeed, often a subject of distaste — insects.
“Insects are fun,” Smith beams, as she notes the “sheer variety” of insects and their adaptations. “There are more insects than almost anything, besides bacteria. They help to balance ecosystems, and their great diversity sheds light on different ecological processes.”
Smith’s “Insect Ecology” class is already benefiting from Le Moyne College’s April 2009 purchase of a 5.4 acre parcel of land encompassing a reservoir which had been owned by the Village of East Syracuse since 1893. In the 1920’s, the Village had granted access for electricity, pipelines, and telephone utilities to some Syracuse companies which no longer exist (such as American Telephone and Telegraph). Le Moyne had owned the surrounding, wooded land, which has some trails and an access road. This land was all part of the large area (including campus) which comprised the original Gifford farm on which the college was founded. The Village of East Syracuse eventually ceased using the reservoir as a water supply, and when it became available for sale, Le Moyne’s science faculty were thrilled.
“This gives us a space for a lot of different kinds of research,” explains Dr. Smith. “It is grassy and relatively undisturbed, so our samples can be compared to places where mowing is regular, for example.”
On a recent outing to the reservoir, Smith’s class wielded specimen nets and gathered samples that will allow comparison to other micro-habitat conditions across the campus. The class is also building a data set regarding soil and leaf litter insects.
Other science classes at Le Moyne are using the reservoir, including the “General Ecology” class taught by Dr. David Smith, also of the biological sciences department. He hopes to turn the reservoir into an outdoor laboratory, once studies of the water level are completed. “This could be a usable small lake for long-term experimental and terrestrial manipulations, and if so, it is of real value educationally.
It could revolutionize what we’ve been able to do with students through having control over the land and water, and make them better prepared as scientists.” He plans to create a website using aerial photographs to trace the history of the landscape and its land use. In addition, there are plans to mark the existing trails with signage describing the walnut, pine, and other tree communities that have developed over time in the region.
Seeing how complex and intricately inter-related our world is enables Le Moyne students to gain a crucial understanding, for, as Dr. Sherilyn Smith explains “We are wiping out huge parts of the complexity before we even get to it-- we can’t gain knowledge fast enough to deal with how we are interacting with the planet.”