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We recently spoke with Keryn Gedan about her Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS) class to learn more about what she and her students were up to in the City of Frederick.

National Center for Smart Growth (NCSG): What’s the title of your course and what’s the class composition like?

Keryn: The title of course is Conservation Biology. It’s all graduate students. Some of them are policy students, most of whom are in the Master’s program in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology, which is housed within the Biology Department under the College of Computer, Mathematics, and Natural Sciences.

NCSG: How did you get involved with the PALS program?

Keryn: I grew up in Frederick, Maryland so when I heard about the program I was really excited to be able to do something for my hometown. I’ve seen a lot of changes in Frederick in my lifetime; I grew up in Frederick County, just five miles outside the city. There’s been a lot of development there and a lot of the farms have been turned into neighborhoods. I’m a conservation biologist so I thought there was a real need for conservation biology.

NCSG: How did that hometown perspective serve you as you formed the classwork?

Keryn: I looked on the list of projects the city proposed and there was one to try to make a plan for the future of the municipal watershed. That’s the 7,000 acre forest that the city owns outside the city limits, near Gambrill State Park. They’ve owned the property for centuries to keep high water quality in their water supply. There’s a reservoir within the municipal watershed that accounts for about 12% of the city’s water supply. It’s about the only source that they directly control because the other sources of water are through rivers and creeks that are flowing through Frederick but not contained within Fredrick’s control. I was interested in studying that water supply with my students and thought this would be a really neat opportunity for my students to apply some of the principles that we learn about in conservation biology to examine the problems we look at a global scale and how they affect a community at a local scale and what we can do about them. So it’s really perfect.

NCSG: Have you and your students had an opportunity to visit Frederick yet?

Keryn: We had a site visit all together where we toured the Frederick City Watershed. We were joined by a forester from Department of Natural Resources, Adam Miller, and Jenny Willoughby, the City’s Sustainability Manager.

We visited some sites within the watershed to look at some of the issues they’re dealing with. They have a lot of unauthorized recreation in that property – especially mountain biking. We saw some of the trails the mountains bikers made and the structures built there. We also looked at invasive plant species, species not native to the region, and what DNR was doing to manage those species and how widely distributed they were.

Students with Forester Adam Miller, from the Department of Natural Resources.

NCSG: How have students reacted to getting outside the classroom and applying some of this learning in a real-world setting?

Keryn: They’ve loved it. It’s been a really positive component of my course. I feel like they’re able to do more independent work. Last year their term project was an independent paper on a topic of their choosing; their work just ended with me. What I really like about PALS is not only are they working as a group, which is a real world, professional experience, but also their work is going to have an impact and it won’t end with me. As such, the work is more interesting and exciting to them and it’s also more realistic. They deal with the constraints of the real world: data availability and uncertainty – these are all issues that play out in the real world but often don’t play out in the classroom.

NCSG: How are the students working together?

Keryn: Well the students are divided into three separate groups – each focusing on a specific deliverable. One is working on invasive species within the park and the expected future of those species given climate change and management activities. The second group is looking at the uses of the watershed and how those uses have changed over time. The third group is examining future climate change and what that will do to water supply.

They’ve taken those themes and narrowed them further. The invasive species group decided to look at the effect of trails on the spread of invasive species within the watershed, which is helpful since the City is reconsidering the rules on recreational users and whether to redefine the trail network so it will be incredibly informative to know how trails affect invasive species. The second group decided to survey users of the watershed and find out how people are using it, where they’re coming from. They sent out a survey through Frederick City networks and surveyed community members at farmer’s markets and other events. They’ve received over 400 responses, which is amazing. They’ll use this information to determine how different generations of users are using the park and reconstruct the evolution of how people use the park. The last group is looking at climate change and what that will do to water supply.

[This is part one of a two-part feature. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Kiel Edson, a student in Keryn’s course, about the fieldwork he and his classmates have done in Frederick.]

Students in a PALS-focused Conservation Biology course in the field as part of their work in the City of Frederick.

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