Biodiversity in Our Own Backyard

Posted: November 19, 2013 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: November 20, 2013 at 6:53 am

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By Lela Ross

students and penguins

Students got up close to friendly penguins at the zoo. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Freeman

If you had only one week of summer vacation remaining before school resumed, how would you spend your time? You would probably relax by the pool or sleep in late. The 11 students who took Elizabeth Freeman’s four-day NCLC 398 Field-Based Work: Sustaining Biodiversity course at George Mason University did the opposite — they went back to school early.

During the week leading up to the beginning of the fall semester, they were on the go, from the Botanic Garden and National Zoo in Washington, D.C., to the National Aquarium and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

What inspired Freeman to create this hands-on, one-credit course that was available to all majors?

“I love the research I get to do on species such as African elephants, black rhinoceros and red pandas. Even more so, I love sharing my enthusiasm for my research, particularly in the classroom,” says Freeman, a conservation biologist. “Ever since becoming a faculty member at New Century College (NCC), I thought it would be fun to share some of those experiences at zoos with students and show them all of the incredible facilities housing biodiversity that are essentially in our own backyard.”

“It was nice to see Dr. Freeman be truly captivated by the subject because we, in turn, were also,” notes senior Laahiri Chalasani.

The class took a behind-the-scenes tour of each site, gaining insight on how each facility helps sustain various species. In the Botanic Garden, students observed abundant, rare and endangered plants from different environments, including deserts, rain forests and the Hawaiian Islands.

Students looking into barrel

Students examine marine life. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Freeman

Zoologists at the National Zoo discussed their research on fertility preservation in rare and endangered species as well as the behavior of animals in the Asia Trail. The presentation concluded with a tour of the trail, which features the red panda, clouded leopard and sloth bear, among others.

At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, students observed endangered shark and frog species and were introduced to quarantined marine life that were to be released into the new Blacktip Reef exhibit.

“Nothing can compare with an up-close and personal experience with other species. I have no doubt the Sustaining Biodiversity students will always remember their time on the penguin exhibit at the Maryland Zoo, for instance. Those types of learning opportunities are priceless,” Freeman says.

Beatrice Laureano, one of Freeman’s students who is majoring in environmental studies notes, “I loved being able to see all the animals and will never forget that I got to touch a penguin!”

Freeman hopes to teach the class again in 2015. “Based upon student feedback, I will make some changes to the course. For instance, next time we might visit the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute campus in Front Royal,” she says.

Freeman earned a BS in biology from Vanderbilt University, an MS in biology from Virginia Commonwealth University, and a PhD in Environmental Science and Policy from Mason. She enjoys conducting research that can improve the reproductive success of endangered species and aid conservation management of both in situ (wild) and ex situ (captive) populations. “My interest in wildlife and passion for protecting biodiversity drive my research endeavors,” Freeman says.

“I loved this class,” says Laureano. “I would recommend it to anyone.”

Write to Robin Herron at rherron@gmu.edu

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