Prospect Magazine: Cool Classes

Muddy Studies

When you study field biology with Dr. Mittermeyer, be prepared to get your feet wet.

One day during a recent spring, Professor Frank Mittermeyer and the students from his “Field Biology of Europe” course were making their way down a woodland trail when they came to a split in the path.

One leg of the trail was a swampy mess of mud and standing water; the other leg kept to the high ground and made for dry and easy hiking. Mittermeyer and the group stopped for a moment to consider their options.

“Well, the path to the right looks really muddy,” Mittermeyer said. “Let’s go right.”

It was, admittedly, not the obvious choice, but to Mittermeyer’s students, it made perfect sense. They laughed and followed him off into the mud.

Mittermeyer had brought his class to the Crabtree Nature Preserve, a wild tract of wetlands and prairies in the northwest suburb of Barrington, to hone their field biology skills. In days, the class would be leaving for Europe for six weeks of hiking, bird-watching, and the study of bio-diversity in the Alps, the Pyrenees, and assorted national forests. Before their departure, Mittermeyer wanted his students to get in a little practice using their binoculars and field guides. He also wanted to make sure they understood they would not always find easy hiking in Europe.

As it turned out, late spring storms and the muddy paths at Crabtree offered the perfect opportunity to expose his novice naturalists to the  elements. “This is a chance for them to get their feet wet, so to speak,” Mittermeyer explained mischievously in the midst of a brief downpour.

Slogging through the preserve and keeping an eye out for elusive herons, Mittermeyer’s students seemed to be absorbing the lesson. “That’s Dr. M.,” said Stephen Hurley, a senior pre-med student. “He wants us to prepare and be ready for what we’ll find over there, so that when we’re on the trip we’ll get the most out of it.”

This not-so-dry run through Crabtree was hardly the course’s most demanding requirement. Though it’s a travel course that takes students to some of the most desirable locations on the continent, this class is no vacation. Mittermeyer describes “Field Biology of Europe” as a study of nature and culture in central Europe. Its twin focus is on the ecology of European mountain regions and on comparative study of European and American approaches to bioethics.

Before they headed overseas, the 10 participants—all pre-med students—first had to complete the full-term course, which met twice weekly in the Schaible Science Center. Their major assignments included scouting reports on the natural areas to be visited in Europe and a presentation and paper on a topic in bioethics. Last spring’s papers included a comparative study of European public reaction to bioengineered food, and an examination of the role of the German medical community in the Nazi Holocaust. Students also were required to enroll in a second course, “Serving Society: Faith Perspectives,” taught by associate professor of theology Nancy Lee. Only then were they ready to depart for Europe for six more weeks of field study.

Mittermeyer has been teaching the course for some two decades. He has built a network of European biologists who can be counted on to lend their local expertise to his groups along the way. He says that his students’ rigorous preparation has not escaped the notice of their hosts. “These biologists work with us because they know that we’re serious and that we’re prepared. We’re not on vacation,” he says.

Hiking through the mud at the Crabtree preserve, Mittermeyer and his group were working to master some of the skills they would need in the mountains of Europe. “Can you pick up that egret in flight with your binocs?” he asked. “Because that’s what you’ll have to do when we’re looking at bearded vultures in the Alps.” Later, he demonstrated a technique for biodiversity studies, measuring off one-square-meter plots of terrain that could be meticulously combed for a count of the plant and animal species encountered there.

Flora and fauna aside, the one thing the group encountered plenty of was mud. Mittermeyer, for one, was undeterred. “These are game conditions,” he announced cheerfully in the rain. “This is where the real ecologists come out and show themselves. By the time we travel, we’ll be a smooth operation.”

Frank Mittermeyer and his students hone their field skills at the Crabtree Nature Preserve.
Photo by Tom Lindfors

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