UNCG FMS 104W — Campus Natural History

The concept of biodiversity has received a lot of attention in the media in recent years. Is biodiversity something that can only be found in the rain forests of Brazil? Not at all: it surrounds us every day when we take a walk down the block, lie out on the lawn, or work in the garden. In this course we will study the land, the animals, and the plants of the UNCG campus (and Peabody Park in particular) as a way of understanding the nature and scope of biological diversity. The course will involve extensive field work identifying plants and animals and maintaining a careful record of observations made. Students should be prepared to work outdoors in all manner of weather conditions (in other words, a little rain or mud may not keep us from spending class outside). Students should also be prepared to work conscientiously and independently on class projects. Some concepts of evolutionary biology and ecology will be learned through direct observation. No biology background is required, but prior interest in natural history will be helpful.

Meeting Time and Place

Monday/Wednesday 2:00–3:15 p.m. in McIver 139A. On most days we will leave the classroom to work outdoors.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara (rjohara@uncg.edu), Department of Biology. I keep regular office hours Monday/Wednesday 4:00–5:00 p.m. in Eberhart 118, and that is where I usually am when I am in the building. E-mail is also a reliable way to contact me and I always welcome e-mail from students about our course or any other matters. You are always welcome to speak to me after class, leave a note in my mailbox in the Biology Department Office (Eberhart 312), or send me e-mail to discuss anything relating to our course or to academics generally. If you’d like to know a bit about my interests and other activities, you’re welcome to visit my webpage (rjohara.net). A copy of this syllabus is available on my teaching webpage (rjohara.net/teaching).


Course Requirements

This will be an unusual course in many respects. Its main object will be to help you acquire a large body of factual knowledge about the animals and plants of our campus, knowledge that will come to you through direct exploration of the grounds and hands-on attempts to identify as many species as possible. The course will demand much personal effort on your part during class, as it is not a lecture course that will feed you information. Students who do not have some genuine interest in the subject matter and an active curiosity will have a hard time doing well.

Attendance is required and punctuality is also critical because we will ordinarily be leaving the classroom to explore outdoors. While we are outside walking as a group you should stay close together and keep conversation to a minimum so you can hear when things are pointed out.

Grades will be based on: two short essays (20% each), a field notebook (20%), and two practical exams outdoors identifying animals and plants (20% each). The essays will be: (1) a topographic description of the campus, and (2) a reflective essay on the campus environment as an educational resource. Details on the essays are provided below. The field notebooks should record the observations you make during our class field trips, beginning with the basic information of date, time, exact location, and weather conditions. The field notebooks will be collected from time to time for review by the instructor. The exams will be on Wednesday, 18 October, during class, and Monday, 18 December, at 12:00 noon, during final exam week.

In addition, the instructor may at his discretion deduct up to 5 points from a student’s final grade based on a subjective evaluation of the amount of effort that the student puts into the class. Because we will often be working somewhat independently outdoors, effort will be required to accomplish our goals. If we spread out along a tract of land to identify trees, you must do just that: identify trees. If you come to class, stay with the group, look and listen rather than chat with friends, and display a measure of initiative in exploring your surroundings you will have nothing to worry about. If you always trail behind the group and talk while other people are trying to look and listen you will not do well.

Recommendations for Field Notebooks

Your field notebooks should develop into valuable records of what you have seen, and should aid you in studying for the exams. They should contain an entry for each meeting of our class, and you should expect to spend time between classes working each entry up. The entries do not have to be continuous prose: I am not necessarily looking for narrative descriptions of the walks we take. Instead, you should record the facts we uncover, the lay of the land, and descriptions of the animals and plants we see. In particular:

  1. Each entry must include date, time, location(s), and a note on weather conditions (“cloudy and calm, about 60°F”; “windy and damp, raining all morning, 55°F”).

  2. One of the purposes of each entry should be to allow you or someone else to locate things you have seen. If we look at a specific plant in one location, for example, put down a precise location so it can be found again. For example: “white coral fungus, along south side of sidewalk between health center and Reynolds Hall, a few inches from the edge of the sidewalk.” In such cases a rough sketch map is a good idea. Imagine that you were giving your notebook to your roommate and sending him/her out to find what you had seen; you should put down enough information for this to be possible. In the case of common species seen in many places you should describe the local distribution in general: “Shagbark Hickory, scattered throughout Peabody Park woods and recognizable from a distance by its distinctive shaggy bark.”

  3. In the case of common plants, I encourage you to press a leaf sample in your notebook as an aid to the memory. A piece of tape can hold it in place. I will occasionally tell you to stop and make a sketch of something we see—you do not have to be a great artist to be able to make an adequate sketch to help your memory.

  4. Please go back through your notebook from time to time and write down the scientific name of each species at least once so it is available for reference.

  5. Please use your field notebook for any notes you take in class as well, so that all your material relating to the course will be available in one place.

Essay Topics

Two essays are required for our course, and each one counts as 20% of your final grade.

The first essay is a three-page topographic description of the campus. Deadline: The draft of the essay is due in class on Wednesday, 27 September. It will be returned to you Monday, 2 October, with comments, and the final version is due Wednesday, 4 October. One point will be deducted from the grade for each day the draft or the final version is late.

Content: Your task in this essay is to give a description of our campus such that someone who has never been here and doesn’t even know where we are would be able to form a mental picture of our grounds from your description. It is helpful to think about the task in reverse: suppose I told you I was thinking about a tract of land somewhere on the earth. The sorts of questions you might ask me in order to learn more about the tract of land I am thinking about are the sort of questions you will want to answer in your description of our campus. For example: Where is it politically, physically, and in longitude/latitude? How big is it and what are its boundaries? Is it flat, mountainous, rolling? What elevation? Are there any obvious divisions of the land? (For example, part wet, part dry; part wooded, part open.) How is the land drained? Does it have any waterways on it? How is the land used? Is it natural or modified by humans? Is it swamp, field, woods, farmland, urban, suburban, or rural? Are there manmade structures on the land? If so, how are they distributed? Is the land occupied by people? Permanently or temporarily? How many? Who? Your writing should be clear and simple; a distinctive personal style should not necessarily jump out at the reader. This is an exercise in organization and clarity rather than imaginative creativity. To keep the style from being monotonous vary the lengths of sentences and paragraphs.

Presentation: Both the draft and the final version should be typed, double-spaced, with margins approximately one inch all around. Your name and the date and the title “Topographic Description of the UNCG Campus” should appear on a separate title page (making four sheets in all).

The second essay is a four-page reflective paper on the campus environment as an educational resource. Deadline: The draft of the essay is due in class on Wednesday, 8 November. It will be returned to you the following Monday, 13 November, with comments, and the final version is due Wednesday, 15 November. One point will be deducted from the grade for each day the draft or the final version is late.

Content: Your task in this essay is to reflect on the educational value of the campus environment (including its animals and plants) to the University. First you must decide on a position: the campus environment is of educational value, or is not of educational value. You may take either position; your grade is based on the quality of your writing, not on the position you take. Once you have selected a position you must develop justification for your position. Some suggestions follow. If you decide to argue that the campus environment is not of educational value, explain why not. Perhaps the natural spaces on campus where we can study animals and plants could be put to better use. Perhaps we ought to be studying environmental phenomena in the laboratory where we can examine them in more detail. Perhaps there is much more information about animals and plants in the Library than we can learn from the local species outdoors. Perhaps there isn’t any point in having students study animals and plants at all (unless they want to be scientists), because such studies are irrelevant to most students’ careers (and the science students can go elsewhere to do their studies). If you take the position that the environment is of educational value, explain why you believe this to be true. If knowledge of biological diversity is important for students to have, why is this so? Is knowledge of local animals and plants of value to anyone other than science students? Has the knowledge you have acquired helped you or made you a better educated person in any way? Is studying the diversity of animals and plants any different from studying literature or history? The organization of this paper will be extremely important and you must give it a great deal of thought. It is usually best to pick three or four clear points that will support your position and develop each of them in detail. Personal anecdotes about your class experiences at the beginning or the end of the paper often help a reader connect with you as a writer and they make it clear that you have personal experience with the subject at hand. Don’t just speak in generalities: use specific examples of things you have seen or thought about or experienced. And remember that the paper is about the educational value of the campus environment, not its recreational or aesthetic value (unless you wish to claim that these contribute to its educational value in specific ways).

Presentation: Both the draft and the final version should be typed, double-spaced, with margins approximately one inch all around. Your name and the date and the title “The Campus Environment as an Educational Resource” should appear on a separate title page (making five sheets in all).

Something to Contemplate

Our course will deal with many details and will only occasionally consider “big picture” topics. But it is from details that big pictures are assembled, and the kinds of observations we will be making have over time been the foundation of some of the greatest ideas in the history of science. Alfred Russel Wallace, a colleague of Charles Darwin and a very prominent nineteenth-century naturalist, wrote what could be an epigraph for our course:

If we take the organic productions of a small island, or of any very limited tract of country, such as a moderate-sized country parish, we have, in their relations and affinities—in the fact that they are there and others are not there, a problem which involves all the migrations of these species and their ancestral forms—all the vicissitudes of climate and all the changes of sea and land which have affected those migrations—the whole series of actions and reactions which have determined the preservation of some forms and the extinction of others,—in fact the whole history of the earth, inorganic and organic, throughout a large portion of geological time. (Alfred Russel Wallace, 1892, Island Life.)

A First Assignment: Basic Practice with Species Names

As a simple first assignment to get you thinking about biological diversity, please write your name at the top of a sheet of paper and answer the questions below using the Robbins et al. book Birds of North America. You should study the introductory pages of the book for background (page 9 in particular). The purpose of this assignment is to give you practice in dealing with scientific and common names of species, and to recognize that each species has a particular geographical distribution. The assignment should be turned in at the second meeting of our class (Wednesday, 23 August). If your page is incomplete or incorrect it will be returned to you and you will have to correct it and turn it in again. Each error remaining on your corrected version will cause one point (out of 100) to be deducted from your final grade.

  1. How many species of wrens are there in North America?

  2. List the common and scientific names of the pigeons and doves that may be found in North Carolina.

  3. What is the common name of Recurvirostra americana?

  4. Does Bombycilla cedrorum occur in North Carolina? What is its common name?

  5. In what state might I find a Whiskered Auklet? What is the scientific name of the Whiskered Auklet?

  6. How many species of swans occur in North America? What are their common and scientific names?

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