A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

A Summer with the WERMS

Catherine Feeney was the Woodland Ecology Research Mentorship (WERM) Crew Leader for the summer of 2016, leading ten, first-year interns through data collection in the field. She also helped facilitate the two summer courses, “Restoration of NYC’s Natural Areas” and “Mapping NYC’s Urban Environment: An Intro to GIS.” She is a recent graduate of SUNY Oneonta.

This summer, ten enthusiastic high school students participated in the Woodland Ecology Research Mentorship program, a 14-month program for high school students to conduct field research with working scientists. Shortly after the July 4th, my students, the first-year WERMS, started Phase I of the program. They began working outside three days a week in three teams on their respective worksites, where they learned about the data-collection protocol and practiced their tree and plant ID skills. You can see them hard at work in this first shot.

WERM-data-Collection-for-blogThe other two days a week they took two college-level courses through the College of Mount Saint Vincent, located just north of Wave Hill. This first picture shows our students learning about novel ecosystems as part of the “Restoration” class.

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In the mornings, the students were taught GIS though a software called ArcMap in “Intro to GIS” course. GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, allows us to display information in a way that relates data to a location. The students all had days in which the software frustrated them, but with patience and practice, they all mastered the skill and gained the ability to create their own maps. In the afternoons, the students’ course focused on ecological restoration. This challenging course taught forest ecology, and gave them the foundation for understanding the work being done in the woodland here at Wave Hill. The class also investigated ecological principles and the natural history of New York City.

In addition to long days in the woodland and classroom, WERM interns also worked on assignments that would help them better understand the ecological and restoration history of the area. They read scientific articles and listened to presenters who came to Wave Hill to speak. Among the speakers were Bill Young, Susan Antenen, Eric Sanderson and Ferdie Yau. We took this shot when Susan Antenen visited to give a presentation about what the WERM sites used to look like.

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Bill Young is a landscape architect, specializing in wetland habitats, who spoke to the students about restoring disturbed land, including parts of Jamaica Bay in Queens. Susan Antenen, the founder of Wave Hill’s Forest Project back in the 1980s, spoke to the students about what the woodland looked like more than 30 years ago. Students used the information Susan provided to frame their research projects this summer. Eric Sanderson is a conservation ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo and director of the Welikia Project. His talk focused on what New York City would have looked like hundreds of years ago. We ended the summer with Ferdie Yau of the Gotham Coyote Project, who spoke about coyote activity in New York City, and how we can co-exist with urban wildlife. Ferdie has also been a mentor in the WERM program the past two summers.

By mid-summer, the interns were getting the hang of GIS and finishing up their data collection, as well as making connections between plots on their sites. They started mapping areas of their sites for their final projects. For example, they created maps showing the level of erosion in relation to locations of dead trees, and examining the general health of their worksite. Then the students learned to analyze data through different charts graphs.

Before they knew it, the WERMs were digitizing their layers into ArcMap and inputting their plot data into Excel to be shared with the rest of the program. They prepared presentations based on all the work they did this summer. While many of them had never spoken to a group that large, each team rose to the challenge and did an amazing job. Though they were all relieved, the hardest part of the project was not done. They had to take all the information they had accumulated and, together with the assignments they worked on over the summer, create research posters. These were presented at the WERM graduation on August 23, and will be presented again at the American Museum of Natural History’s Student Science Summit in November, 2016.

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At the start of the summer, these amazing teenagers came to Wave Hill with no idea what the data collection protocol was or how to differentiate a Norway maple from a sugar maple. Now, they can identify most trees in the woodland, spot invasive plants, determine the health of a tree and much more! Words cannot express how lucky I was to work with these students this summer. I have never met a group of teenagers with the ability to learn so quickly and with such positive outlooks. No matter how hot or rainy it was, or how stressed they were about an assignment, the WERMs found a way to make each other laugh and create for themselves—and me!—an unforgettable summer. And here they all are, ready to present all their research at the WERM graduation.

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