Practicum in Environmental Science
A component that makes the Environmental Science undergraduate degree so unique among universities is a year-long sequence that requires students to tackle real problems and develop solutions. The purpose of the Practicum in Environmental Science is to provide students experience with an environmental science research project in a realistic group collaboration. The goal is for students to acquire not only technical and subject-matter skills, but to develop interpersonal skills that will help them in the workplace.
The Environmental Science Practicum is supervised by field ecologist and Associate Adjunct Professor Dr. Travis Longcore. As the coordinator of the Practicum, Dr. Longcore begins by working with academic leadership to solicit and select the projects that will be undertaken by the students. The next step is coordinating with the clients over the summer prior to the course in the fall for guest speaking slots to introduce the topics to the students. Clients include public agencies, non-profits, and businesses such as the National Park Service, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, the California Air Resource Board, the Los Angeles Watershed Protection Division, Heal the Bay, TreePeople, Southern California Edison, and Walt Disney Imagineering.
In the fall Dr. Longcore introduces the topics as case studies, teaches students how to write an academic literature review, and includes instruction on professional norms and practices. Students then divide into teams based on a specific environmental case study. The groups must perform original data collection and analysis, write a final report, and present their findings. During the winter and spring quarters, Dr. Longcore coordinates the many advisors who work with the research groups and advises two teams himself. It is the Practicum coordinator's role to keep everyone on schedule and ensure project milestones are met. The last step is to organize the presentations in the spring, where the final results of the research are presented to clients and fellow students in the seminar series.
The richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to new challenges like climate change.
Changes in the physical environment impact species fitness. Biodiversity preservation was the focus for a team that studied the native fauna of the Mediterranean Coast Network. These ecological communities are the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Channel Islands National Park, and Cabrillo National Monument. The team determined species susceptibility using a climate change vulnerability index. Their results showed that the factors that most affect species’ sensitivity and exposure to climate change are dispersal abilities, sea level rise, and confinement by anthropogenic and natural barriers. This study can help promote the importance of species protection against climate change.
Another team studied wildlife corridors. This particular project studied various animal populations in fragmented habits—natural habitats in close proximity to human developments, residential, and commercial areas. Remotely triggered cameras were set up for three months to document the movements of these populations. The data gathered showed that wildlife use areas on the edge of suburban developments to move between habitat patches. The documented presence of a variety of wildlife in this area has protection and conservation implications which will affect development in this area in the future.
The historic fire regime, changing land use practices, and misadvised management threaten vegetation communities in Rancho Sierra Vista (the eastern extent of the Santa Monica National Recreation Area). A team was charged with supplementing data regarding the current extent of these vegetation communities in Rancho Sierra Vista, including data on the relative stability of the vegetation boundaries, to help advise the National Park Service on areas best suited for restoration of Coast Live Oak Woodlands. The group analyzed aerial imagery from 1959 and 2010 and conducted fieldwork to validate accuracy of the current map, and to help in lab classification.
A team assigned to work for environmental non-profit TreePeople was tasked with determining whether the current practice of installing wire cages and plastic tree shields to protect oak saplings from animal browsing pressures and freezing temperatures was necessary for the successful restoration of Coast live oak and Valley oak in the Santa Monica Mountains. The observational study substantiated that tree shelters are likely detrimental to oak trees in the Santa Monica Mountains and that installing wire cages above and below ground to exclude browsing may increase the growth and establishment rates of oak saplings, but all three treatment combinations are of broader significance to oak restoration in Southern California.
A team analyzed Wheeler North Reef (WNR), an artificial reef off the coast of San Clemente, California that was constructed as an ecological mitigation project for Southern California Edison’s San Onofre nuclear power plant. The team looked at the biological diversity of the reef and the economic impact on commercial fishing in order to determine how WNR functions as a natural reef and if it has quantifiable impact on the local community. As a part of its requirements, the reef must meet certain performance standards instituted by the California Coastal Commission in order to evaluate its success. WNR did show an increase in species evenness over a developmental lifetime. The team analyzed commercial fish landing data of five different species from 1995-2011 to assess the economic value of WNR. The results of the study indicated that WNR performs biologically similar to natural reefs and provides additional local economic benefits that influence commercial fishing. In conclusion, WNR can act as a model for future artificial reef implementation.
Energy efficiency and environmental stewardship served as the springboard for multiple projects.
Alternative energy is key in creating a sustainable future. Working with the California Air Resources Board, a team was charged with calculating the energy inputs and CO2 equivalent emissions of a conventional gasoline vehicle, a hybrid vehicle, and a battery electric vehicle (BEV) to determine the lifecycle environmental costs of each specific to California. The main purpose of the study was to examine the environmental impact of each vehicle type, taking into account the lifecycle energy usage and both CO2 equivalents and air pollution emitted. In terms of environmental impacts, the BEV was determined to have the least overall impact, followed by the hybrid, and lastly the conventional gasoline vehicle.
Good corporate stewardship is about the wise use of resources and using business to benefit people and the planet. A leader in tourism, Walt Disney Imagineering, initiated a research study to evaluate the perception of hotel eco-certification by consumers in order to provide recommendations to the hotel industry as to the tangible and perceived benefits of eco-certification to consumers. A survey was administered to figure out consumer preferences with respect to green hotel practices. The results of the survey illustrated a general lack of consumer knowledge regarding eco-certification programs, especially in terms of what they are and how they function. Although consumer awareness is low, the interest in eco-certification in the hotel industry is not. The study recommended that hotels pursue eco-certification in conjunction with increased marketing and educational outreach in order to most effectively reduce operating costs while simultaneously increasing attractiveness to potential customers.
A Washington Post-Stanford University poll found that Americans identify water and air pollution as the world’s most pressing environmental issue.
Working for Heal the Bay, a team collected beach water samples after rainfall events to determine Fecal Indicator Bacteria (Enterococci,) concentrations. The Los Angeles Department of Public Health issues a 72-hour advisory period discouraging swimming in contaminated waters after a rainy day. Samples were collected at an open beach in Playa del Rey, where coastal mixing occurs normally, and a nearby closed beach known as Mother’s Beach, where mixing of contaminated water is limited. The results determined that for both beaches 72 hours was not adequate to ensure the decrease of FIB concentration to safe levels.
Stormwater runoff is the leading cause of water pollution in coastal watersheds. To ensure stormwater quality, Los Angeles retrofitted over 22,000 catch basins with screens to prevent trash from entering the storm drain system. Since commercial zones have the highest trash pollution generation rates, a team investigated the variation in volume and composition of catch basin debris according to three socioeconomic factors: ethnicity, population density, and income, which were broken down into further subcategories. Ten survey sites were chosen. Debris volume was calculated from a database of catch basin cleaning history. Trash can frequency in areas of different incomes showed a negative correlation with average debris volume, while trash can frequency in areas of different population densities showed a positive correlation. Another interesting finding was that there was no strong demographic correlation for the amount of trash, and over three quarters of the trash in the basin was organic material like leaves and grass clippings.
As populations and cities grow there is a consequential effect on the environment.
The Natural Park Service served as the client for projects that focused on vineyard development in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA). SMMNRA exists as one of the few large tracts of land in Southern California that provides natural habitat supporting ecological services for both humans and wildlife. Development of vineyards could severely disturb natural areas, which could result in fragmentation and loss of native species. This study focused on the physical and political factors that constrain vineyards. Analysis indicated that unprotected areas in the SMMNRA are at risk of being disturbed by vineyard development. The research identified areas where vineyard development could potentially occur given current zoning and land use regulations.
Addressing the issue of the expansion of viticulture in the SMMNRA, another team conducted extensive research to identify the major aspects of the native habitat that were likely to be the most sensitive to vineyard development. Their findings provided comprehensive information and resources to mitigate these impacts. Utilizing the most current Geographic Information Systems data, comprehensive maps were generated to provide a visual understanding of what areas were at risk for degradation. Recommendations were made for minimizing harm. Techniques and practices that have been identified as sustainable for viticulture with reduced consequences on the overall environment of the SMMNRA were outlined. These guidelines can provide a map to a healthy, sustainable future for vineyards and the natural environment alike.
At commencement, graduating seniors frequently cite the Practicum in Environmental Science as the best part of the degree program. The Practicum experience can really affect a student's next move – whether it is transitioning into a profession or pursuing graduate school. Success stories include Jenna Rodriguez (Class of 2010) and Roxana Ramirez (Class of 2009), who went on to pursue advanced degrees at the University of California, Davis and Stanford University. A project that utilized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) led Dale Douk (Class of 2010) to a career at Esri. Esri is a software development and services company that provides GIS software and geodatabase management applications. Kirstie Ruppert (Class of 2012) is working as an environmental education intern at the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
Dr. Longcore stated, “Practicum projects have a lasting influence." These projects often have an impact outside the classroom. The City of Santa Clarita used a Practicum study to help promote wildlife preservation in the region and published the project's final results on their website. Dr. Longcore said the National Park Service has also used products produced through Practicum work. Urban ecology web journal Cities and the Environment published a Practicum study on human and wildlife inertactions: “The Use of Anticoagulant Rodenticides in Single-Family Neighborhoods Along an Urban-Wildland Interface in California.” The Practicum in Environmental Science's combination of research experience and professional development training results in IoES students directly contributing to creating a more sustainable future.
Published: Tuesday, August 07, 2012