New Graduate Course Sparks Local Service Learning Opportunity

BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 21, 2003 – A new graduate seminar offered in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech engages students in learning to tackle real life issues, in this case, the effects of vegetation control and restoration along Toms Creek in Blacksburg. The class, Riparian Planting Case Study, consists of five graduate students under the instruction of Carola Haas, associate professor of fisheries and wildlife sciences.

Virginia Tech, the town of Blacksburg, Blacksburg Natural Heritage Foundation and other local organizations have been planning a five-star restoration project. The habitat restoration and improvement project is located along a section of Toms Creek on property owned by the town of Blacksburg, known as the former Brown Farm. Haas' course is designed to help the local group understand the problem of exotic invasive plants and the costs and benefits of vegetation control along waterways in the area of restoration. Through research, students will provide information as to how to successfully establish plantings and reduce the negative impacts on native wildlife.

"The focus of the class is for students to engage in a hands-on experience with a project in action," Haas said. "It is important for the students to understand the complexity of the project and all of the factors involved."

Haas described the class as an "excellent service learning opportunity." By the end of the course, students will have greater knowledge of alternative methods of the control of exotic invasive plants. "Students will develop a report outlining pros and cons of the different methods of controlling exotic invasive plants at this site, with an emphasis on the effects of wildlife populations," Haas noted.

As students do research both in the classroom and onsite, professors from different areas of study within the university will join the class to help the students understand each aspect of the project. Lee Skabelund, research professor of landscape architecture and head of the restoration project, will give students an overview of the project and his ideas for improving the area. Bruce Hull, professor of forestry, is teaching how to define natural areas and "good" ecological restoration. Tom Wieboldt, of the university herbarium, has led the class on a site visit to explore existing plant communities in the wetlands and uplands. Paige Warren, research associate in biology, and several faculty members in the fisheries and wildlife sciences department will discuss urbanization on wetlands and wildlife value of riparian zones.

In addition to this service-learning class and the design class in landscape architecture, at least three other classes being taught this fall involve fieldwork along Toms Creek, and are discussing the proposed restoration project, mainly with a focus on wetland function and delineation. Mike Aust, associate forestry professor who specializes in soils, and Jim Parkhurst, associate professor in fisheries and wildlife sciences and the state's extension wildlife specialist, are leading two of those courses.

Haas' students will provide background research to Skabelund's students, who will be designing the plant layout. If the citizens group feels there is enough information to proceed, the project will begin to be implemented in February or March of 2004.

For more information on this new graduate class contact Carola Haas at or (540) 231-9269.

Written by Meredith Long, Public Affairs Intern