Technology brings students closer to nature - Saint Mary's University of Minnesota Skip to Main Content

First year students deposit here

Go Back

Technology brings students closer to nature

October 7, 2020


Ray Faber, Ph.D., will freely admit that understanding technology doesn’t always come naturally.

But, in this pandemic, Dr. Faber is using technology to make nature more understandable.

With the use of a GoPro and other videos, he’s transporting his ecology lab students virtually to multiple locations.

“We would normally transport students to sites in the field,” he said. “The labs are well thought out and have been successful in the past, and I wanted to do the same thing this year, but it’s impossible under the current guidelines. It involves travel and, in a couple of cases, boats, and we really can’t do either. So the plan is to use videos to visit those sites and create videos of features we want to experience.”

So far, with the help of assistant professor Tom Rodegen, Dr. Faber has used GoPro footage for one lab. It wasn’t without its share of difficulties, including a one-minute recording limit, a lengthy upload time, and some overheating. Undaunted, the two are trying a different format for their next outing. Rodengen said the use of video is beneficial because students learn in a variety of ways. “It provides a sort of ‘textbook’ if it ever needs to be referenced,” he said.

Rodengen and Dr. Faber say they are learning as they go and plan to expand using video for other critical curriculum units like the nearby lock and dam system.

“People come in with the opinion that the Mississippi River is merely a great natural resource when, in fact, it’s a river of commerce, always has been, and it has been dramatically manipulated over the years to accommodate that commerce and other usages,” Dr. Faber said. “Those changes really modify the environment. So I like to have students become aware of what has resulted from the changes that have been made, changes we didn’t always anticipate would happen. There are a lot of ecological lessons.”

Later on this semester, he plans to record a visit to the Trempealeau National Wildlife refuge, a prairie restoration project that has had its own difficulties throughout the years, according to Dr. Faber.

For example, he details how the refuge went from being a farm to being overrun by weeds. The property’s new manager chose to use a standard burning practice to restore the land to its original prairie state. Although he had some success, one invasive species, the black locust, actually thrived. “Fire removed all the other trees but the black locust has vegetative reproduction so its growth was stimulated by the burning,” Dr. Faber said. “Then, in the 1960s, they used a chemical to get rid of the black locus and ended up contaminating the wildlife refuge trying to address this problem.”

Dr. Faber said the basis of ecology is understanding all the factors that affect an organism at any point in its life cycle. ”What we do has multiple impacts,” he said. If we want to conserve and protect our world, we need to know the consequences of our actions. It’s an important lesson that Dr. Faber hopes to make more understandable and relatable to his students any way he can.