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Bethel College students, faculty research prairie plant communities

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. - While many students know labs to be a part of science class during the school year, Bethel College biology majors Danielle Billings, senior from Hesston, and Emily (Skinner) Schmidt, junior from Clay Center, are spending their summer using the Kansas prairie as their laboratory. "Education should be more than what we do in a classroom. For us in the sciences, research makes what we learn in class real," said Jon Piper, professor of biology at Bethel and advisor to the student researchers.

Billings began her research July 21 at the college’s Sand Prairie Natural History Preserve, located 14 miles west of the North Newton campus. Sand Prairie, an 80-acre site, is one of the rare, natural areas owned and maintained by the college for educational purposes.

The next day Billings collected data at Broadie Prairie Preserve, four miles north of Winfield. Also owned by Bethel College, the site is part of the Kansas Flint Hills, which contain the largest remaining tallgrass prairie in North America.

"The nice thing about Bethel owning the two sites is that we can do comparisons," said Piper.

Billings is exploring the effects of nitrogen additions on native prairie plant communities. Because of human activities in recent decades, there is much more nitrogen falling to earth in the rainfall. The long-term effects of this additional rainfall on natural areas is unknown. The two sites each contain 50 plots, on which five different amounts of nitrogen are added each year. Piper and students have been observing changes in the biodiversity at each site since 2000.

"It’s great to be putting techniques into practice and seeing what we talked about in class at work in the field," said Billings.

Later in the week Schmidt started her research on the east end of the Bethel College campus. Also dealing with biodiversity, Schmidt’s research is entirely of a restorative nature, in an attempt to find the best combinations of native grasses and wildflowers for restoring prairies.

Schmidt collected data from 60 plots of land, in an area that was originally tallgrass prairie but in the late 19th century was plowed up for farming. For the plots, 12 treatments containing up to 16 species of native plants were replicated five times and sewn over the land.

"I was interested in environmental biology, and I thought this might be an area of interest," said Schmidt, who is also majoring in elementary education. "My kids in the classroom are gonna get a big dose of science."

Though Billings and Schmidt are conducting the research for their senior seminars in biology, both students were also hired by Bethel’s science department, in response to Piper’s annual invitation for assistants in field research. Bethel has a long tradition with environmental studies, having developed one of the first environmental studies majors in the country.

"I am interested in doing field biology and inviting fine students to participate in the research," said Piper.

In addition, Billings received one of the college’s Summer Undergraduate Research Awards to research a topic of her choice under the guidance of a faculty member. During the academic year, she will be required to present her field research to the college body.

Piper began both research projects in 2000. Since then several Bethel students have participated in the experiments Billings and Schmidt are gathering data from this summer. Piper expects to have enough data to submit the findings for publication in major conservation biology journals next year, listing all contributing students as coauthors.

"One good thing about the Bethel science program is that doing independent research is a requirement. Jon has been teaching me all the techniques I need to gather data," said Billings. "Working one-on-one with a professor like him has been important to my understanding of research."

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