(Posted February 8, 2010)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Environmental science students from Juniata College and St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa. -- two colleges roughly 50 miles apart -- will come together to study for an entire semester at Juniata's Raystown Field Station from January through May.

The program, which starts Jan. 18 and continues through the spring semester, asks students from both institutions to put aside school pride and explore forests, navigate lakes and dig deep into the biodiversity of what could be called the largest outdoor classroom in higher education -- the Raystown Field Station.

"I think sharing resources with St. Francis is a great idea. Because of the small size and separation by gender in the dorms, there were no cliques or groups. We helped each other understand assignments and study for exams and no one was really excluded."

Ian Gardner, junior, Juniata College

Seven Juniata students and two St. Francis students will take four courses while living in the two residential lodges located at the field station. Each lodge has rooms for six students, plus a small kitchen and living room. This semester marks the second spring semester that St. Francis students have participated in the program. In spring 2009, six St. Francis students studied at the lakeside facility.

"Cooperative programs between higher education institutions are becoming more common," says Dennis Johnson, professor of environmental science and assistant provost at Juniata. As colleges and universities adjust to the post-recession economy and enrollments at institutions fluctuate, many institutions seek out cooperative agreements to share facilities to (a) ensure that facilities are fully utilized, and (b) give nearby schools access to facilities that are lacking on their own campus.

Representatives from Juniata and St. Francis met in 2008 to propose the cooperative program and the first collaborative semester began in spring 2009 with six students each from St. Francis and Juniata.

"It was amazing; every day brought something different to learn about outside, says Ian Gardner, a junior from Hummelstown, Pa. who spent last spring at the station. "Most of the classes involved hikes or outdoor lectures such as basic observations, habitat surveys, bird banding, and bird watching. We even witnessed the white-winged crossbill migration through the pine forests around Lake Raystown and the spring warbler migration."

The students spend the entire semester at the Raystown Field Station, although all students are allowed to return to their respective campuses for visits and events. Juniata provides a chef for the group. The chef, Mark Grazier, prepares lunch and dinner Monday through Friday. In addition, he allows students to accompany him to shop for ingredients if they have any dietary restrictions.

Faculty at Juniata and St. Francis split the teaching duties. The semester offers students four courses: Ecology, taught by Lane Loya, associate professor of biology at St. Francis; Marine Biology, taught by Devonna Sue Morra, professor of biology at St. Francis; Biostatistics, taught by Vince Buonaccorsi, associate professor of biology at Juniata; and Vertebrate Zoology, taught by Chuck Yohn, director of the Raystown Field Station.

"The cooperative program not only allows students to collaborate but it also brings together the expertise of both colleges," Morra says. "For example, Juniata doesn't have an animal behavior course, but we do. It's an invaluable teaching tool for us and a learning tool for the students."

In the fall, the Semester at the Lake curriculum also is comprised of four courses: Ecology, GIS (Geographic Information Systems), a Sense of Place and Rivers and Streams. Some courses meet regularly two or three days a week for the entire semester, while others may meet for three- or four-hour sessions once a week for 10 weeks.

The inter-institution collaboration has not been without a few bumps, according to Johnson. Juniata and St. Francis have markedly different methods for class registration, making it difficult for the St. Francis students to register for the class except in spring semester. "We register in March for (both fall and spring semester of) the following year, Johnson explains.

"Juniata has a head start on us because they've been offering this course for a few years," Morra explains. "It will probably take us a few years to build our program."

As budget considerations and a trend toward specialization spreads across college campuses, more collaborative programs will become the norm. "Just having the opportunity to take courses at a research field station is a big attraction for students," Johnson says. "By partnering with St. Francis, we've been able to be more flexible in scheduling, course offerings and teaching loads."

"I think sharing resources with St. Francis is a great idea," says Gardner. "Because of the small size and separation by gender in the dorms, there were no cliques or groups. We helped each other understand assignments and study for exams and no one was really excluded."

Morra and Johnson point out that the program also can offer interdisciplinary courses beyond the sciences. St Francis offered Environmental Literature as a course in fall semester 2009 and Juniata has offered a Humanities at the Lake semester in the past.

Johnson says Juniata would like to expand the partnership as well to other Pennsylvania institutions. So far the two institutions have invited Washington & Jefferson College and Susquehanna University to visit the field station and observe and both schools are considering it.

Although both St. Francis and Juniata campuses are located in close proximity to forestland and wildlife habitat, most faculty tend to spend more time in the classroom when on their respective campuses. Morra points out that teaching at the field station means that faculty have little choice about "going out in the field." "I love it out here," she says. "In the classroom, we can put up a video of a specific animal behavior, but out here at the Raystown Field Station, we can just sit on the porch and observe birds and even deer."

Juniata has offered the Semester at the Lake course since 2006 and can accept 12 to 13 students each semester to fill the residential lodges. In the past three years, enrollment in the earth and environmental sciences department has increased to about 35 students per year. In a recent survey, the environmental science majors ranked the opportunity to study at the field station as very important. "Whether the (students actually) go out to the lake to study or not, the fact the opportunity exists for them to consider is an important selling point to students," Johnson explains.

"We were concerned that the students would segregate themselves according to which college they attended," Morra says. "As it turned out, they isolated themselves according to gender: one group of guys and one group of girls."

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.