Lakeland College

Not your typical classroom!

May 30, 2014 In Lakeland College Blog
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This classroom had no air conditioning, and the biting pests were a bit of a problem.

But that's what you get when your classroom is actually a tropical forest.

Paul Pickhardt's BIO 400 tropical biology course recently returned from the Central American country of Belize, where five Lakeland College students engaged in 15 days of the most hands-on learning imaginable. It was the fourth time since 2008 that this every-other-year educational excursion has taken place.

Last week, back in the comfort of a climate-controlled, insect-free traditional classroom, the two student research teams gave fascinating presentations in front of a BIO 100 Mayterm class.

While in Belize, students Paul Elzinga, Tim Green and Tyler Malwitz studied the predatory habits of ant lion insect larvae; and Lindsey Biter and Theresa Wallner focused on the nesting preferences of off-the-ground termites.

When the Lakeland contingent arrived in Belize, a six-mile hike to the flora- and fauna-rich tropical forest base followed. The group braved temperatures of up to 104 degrees with high humidity, and Pickhardt said he counted more than 100 tick bites on his body. His students' arms had remnants of all kind of insect bites as well. But judging from the story-telling and smiles, the trip was worthwhile and memorable indeed.

Elzinga, Green and Malwitz measured and studied ant lion trap pits in sandy habitats below forest cabins, investigating what size of pit and what kind of sand yielded the most success for the ant lions.

Biter and Wallner determined which types of tree housed the most termite colonies, and theorized why.

After the students' presentations ended, Pickhardt, a talented photographer who strategically set up video "camera traps" on or near trails in the lowland rainforest, gave a special presentation of his own. On one video clip, he captured a puma walking past. And on another, he filmed an elusive pregnant jaguar.



"I think that for everyone involved, this is a transformative experience in terms of putting into practice all the things we talk about," said Pickhardt. "It's such an incredibly diverse place, with plants and animals just jumping out at you. Not just every day, but every hour."

Pickhardt said the course, which he created with fellow Lakeland faculty member Greg Smith, is demanding, not just because of the on-site research his students are required to do, but also because of the physically and, at times, emotionally draining environment.

On the group's first night in Belize, it encountered a highly venomous fer-de-lance snake – one of six or seven snake species the students observed. They also saw basilisk lizards run across the surface of a river and regularly heard howler monkeys shrieking through the night.

On the last two days of the trip, the Lakeland group engaged in a mini coral reef biology unit, snorkeling in mangroves and in an open-water barrier reef.

"In addition to really focusing on their very narrowly defined research, the students got to see so much other really cool stuff," Pickhardt said.

"And even though we've just returned and I'm still readjusting to temperate life, it's difficult for me to not get excited about taking the next group of Lakeland students to the tropics in May of 2016."

Check out Lakeland's biology program here: http://www.lakeland.edu/Majors-and-Minors/biology

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