Earlier this year, Monica Miles, an associate lecturer in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science, attended a workshop about geographic information systems (GIS)—a system that creates, manages, analyzes and maps all types of data.
The workshop, put on by the UTC Interdisciplinary Geospatial Technology Lab, made Miles think about ways to introduce GIS to her students.
“For our biology and environmental science students, it’s becoming more common that employers are listing GIS experience as something that’s preferential for them,” she said, “and after attending that workshop, I was like, ‘If I can incorporate GIS into the lab, it’s going to give these students some exposure to it and they can at least say I have some skill in this.
“I was thinking about it. We’re in the Southeast, invasive species are everywhere and plants are easy to study, so maybe we can have the students go out somewhere in the community, map some invasive species and look at their occurrence.”
After consulting with Assistant GIS Director Nyssa Hunt for ideas, Miles contacted Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center. As fate would have it, Reflection Riding happened to be looking for assistance in mapping invasive plant species.
Timing was everything.
“I reached out to Mark McKnight—he’s the president and CEO at Reflection Riding—and he jumped on the idea,” Miles said.
“He said, ‘We just got this grant to fund the removal of winter honeysuckle. We know where it’s concentrated, but it would be nice to know the full extent along that trail and in that area so when we do the removal, we know to send groups here, here and here—but we don’t have to worry about going over there.’”
In late September, Miles accompanied two Ecology Laboratory 3070 classes to Reflection Riding to help map the nature center’s invasive species removal efforts—one lab section focused on winter honeysuckle, the other on Oriental bittersweet.
Those invasive plant species were initially brought from East Asia as decorative plants.
“They come into these environments and our native species haven’t evolved with these invasive species—so they don’t have any way to compete with them or to respond to them,” she explained. “In terms of competition, our invasive species are outcompeting our native species, contributing to the decline of our native honeysuckle and native bittersweet.
“That can affect the ecosystem and animals that depend on those plants. If we can focus our removal efforts and do a good job removing these species, we can start to restore those ecosystems.”
Both invasive species needed to be located for removal efforts, so Miles had the students use a GIS phone app to track and plot data points.
She said the students enjoyed the experience, hiking and dashing on and off the nature preserve’s trails.
“They did great. They were way off in the brush sampling and it was really nice to see their passion for what they were doing,” Miles said.
The Biology, Geology and Environmental Science Enhancement Fund was created by current faculty to provide yearly support for faculty to implement new teaching initiatives. With the goal to eventually endow the fund, initiatives supported by it will include new instrumentation and teaching methods that will involve active learning opportunities for students. As a department that includes fields increasingly defined by new technologies and data types, the fund will strive to maintain relevant instruction for graduates to be competitive with their peers as they seek post-graduate educational options or employment. Click here to make a gift to the BGE Teaching Enhancement Fund.
Kel Kaczmarek, a junior environmental science major from Hendersonville, Tennessee, was part of the group mapping Oriental bittersweet.
“We used a quick capture app on our phones,” Kaczmarek said. “We were divided into groups and spent an hour and a half at it. Whenever we would find Oriental bittersweet, we would mark it on the phone. If we hadn’t seen any for a while, we would click no invasives found.”
Brooklynn Ashmore, a junior pre-professional biology major from Lynnville, Tennessee, participated in the winter honeysuckle search.
“I had never been on a field trip class before at UTC, so that was fun,” Ashmore said. “I didn’t expect to hike that much, but it was really cool when we reached the top.
“We were looking for the invasive species of the honeysuckle bushes and were asked to identify the dead and the live ones—and that was really interesting. I enjoyed it a lot.”
Sophomore environmental science major Bliss Murphy said learning about data point collection was beneficial for her future studies.
“I love fieldwork and wanted the chance to get better data points and find more honeysuckle,” Murphy said. “There was a slope in our section of the study area and I went for it; I went through all the brush and the trees and found a good number of winter honeysuckle there.
“The GIS app is something I think I would like to use in the future because I do collect my own data when I go out. I look for reptiles and amphibians and document their locations. Now that I know how to use GIS, I could map all those data points out.”
Miles likes to say she came to UTC for undergrad and never left.
Since first arriving on campus a decade ago from the Middle Tennessee town of Springfield, Miles—a first-generation college student—has migrated from a bachelor’s degree (biology, 2016) to a master’s degree (environmental science, 2018) to a lecturer position.
Teaching, she said, wasn’t in the initial career plans.
“When I first started my master’s, I got into it thinking I wanted to do field ecology work; teaching was never something I wanted to do,” said Miles, who now teaches a rotating schedule of Principles of Biology, Conservation of Biodiversity, Ecology, Evolution and Ecology Laboratory. “I remember in undergrad, I hated giving presentations. I would always shake and get nervous. It was the worst thing ever.”
An opportunity to teach an intro biology lab as a grad school student changed her career path.
“I just fell in love with it and I liked that interaction,” she recalled. “I really liked seeing those light bulbs go on in students’ heads when a concept they’re struggling with clicks. All of a sudden they get passionate about it.”
While she claims to be “not the most gung-ho presenter,” students Ashmore and Murphy said Miles continually keeps her students interested in the subject matter.
“She’s the only professor that really makes me want to learn and gets me excited to go to class,” Ashmore said. “I’ve had her for every single class that she teaches here. Before registering for classes, I purposely look for which classes she teaches. That’s why I keep taking her over and over. I enjoy her class so much.”
Added Murphy, “I’ve asked her about her career and its implications on how I may pursue mine.”
As a non-tenure-track faculty member, Miles said she enjoyed the research she participated in as a graduate student, but teaching has become her passion.
“That feeling that I get when I’m done teaching for the day—that the students have really gotten that concept and they’ve gotten a lot out of that class—that’s what fulfills me,” she said. “That’s not every day, but when it does happen, it’s such a good feeling.”
Her own desire for learning gets enriched through opportunities like introducing her students to GIS at Reflection Riding.
“I’m excited to grow in this position, and the work I’m doing with the Ecology Lab is a good step in that direction because it’s getting me into different subfields that aren’t really in my background,” Miles said.
“Each time I teach my courses, even though I’ve been doing them for a little while now, I learn something new. This Ecology Lab is scratching that itch and is also expanding on how I’m benefiting the students in terms of the skills they’re getting that will hopefully benefit them in the job market.”
Ecology Laboratory 3070 photo gallery by Angela Foster