SLU Station Immerses Students in Biology Education
by Marie Dilg
For Dr. Thomas Valone, professor of Biology, a typical day at the Reis Biological Station begins at 7 a.m. He cooks breakfast for the eight students who are taking his ornithology course. The students stumble out of their rustic cabins into the lodge, and before Valone can finish his first cup of coffee, they begin asking questions about his lecture the day before.
After breakfast, the group heads out for a three-hour field trip into forest or prairie, or along the edge of the Huzzah Creek to learn how to identify birds. They come back to the lodge for lunch, a lecture and lab work. After dinner (Valone’s specialty is Moroccan couscous chicken with herbs) they go on another hike to look for nocturnal birds. Valone brings a recording of owl vocalizations, and students wait for their feathered friends to arrive. Class usually dismisses by 8 p.m., but questions often go past 10.
“This is immersion learning,” said Valone, director of the station. “On campus you can show your students a PowerPoint presentation on birds or plants, but at the field station they can see, feel and touch what you’re talking about. You can see their eyes light up.”
Students stay at the station, which is about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis in Steelville, Mo., anywhere from three weeks to the entire semester depending upon the course they are taking. During that time, students bunk together, eat family style and conduct research in the field and in the station’s laboratory.
Over the summer, the biology department offers three concurrent, three-week field biology courses on topics including plant biology, cave biology and aquatic ecology. The station can handle up to 30 students, although more than twice that many apply.
In response to the demand and to better use the station year round, the biology department began offering a full-semester field biology course this past fall taught by Dr. Valone and Dr. Janet Barber. Students, such as Caroline Dong, a senior from Iowa, spend Monday through Thursday living at the station.
“You learn things a lot quicker when you can actually see what you’re studying and when you can focus on them without interruption,” Dong said. “Plus, you can ask questions anytime about anything. I got advice about applying for grad school from my professor while she was cutting vegetables for dinner.”
If You Build It, They Will Come
Land for the station was donated to SLU in 1956 by Valentine Reis, father of the late Raymond Reis, S.J., a biology faculty member. The department used the station primarily for short field trips until 1981 when Dr. Nevin Aspinwall became director. He oversaw construction of the lodge that contains the kitchen, dining room and two bathrooms. A 1989 grant from the National Science Foundation allowed construction of the lab and an indoor classroom. In the years following, Aspinwall enlisted SLU students to help him build six cabins and a shower house. Dr. Robert Wood (A&S ’86), now professor and chairman of the biology department, was one of those students.
“The field station changed my career path,” said Wood, who has been teaching summer courses at Reis since 1994. “I was on the pre-med track at SLU when I went to Reis at the beginning of my sophomore year to take a course on vertebrate biology. That was it. I was hooked. I knew this was the field for me and I wanted to teach here. I tell students all the time I can’t believe they pay me to do this.”
Fewer than 50 such field stations exist in the United States, only a handful of which are in the Midwest. Since the mid 1980s when department faculty began teaching at Reis, more than 600 SLU students have taken classes there. About 15 years ago the department created a consortium of colleges and universities to allow other students in the region access to the station’s natural resources.