Field Studies Program
The Field Studies Program turns local students into young scientists, sparking their interest in academics through hands-on projects that investigate animal activity, monitor invasive species, and check water quality. Students use the Smokey House Center land as a research plot to collect data that is either linked to state and national scientific studies or to the actual management of the reserve. Research topics include natural communities, water quality, invertebrates, amphibians, biological sampling, plant identification, forest management, and more. Topics, formats, and schedules can be customized to school needs, but a typical model is a two-week program, on-site daily at Smokey House Center, culminating in student research reports and/or presentations at their school.
This program was founded in 1994 in partnership with Poultney High School and is now run in collaboration with The Tutorial Center. Seventh graders from The Dorset School arrive for two weeks of intensive environmental science work each spring. Plans are in progress to provide field studies programs for middle school and upper elementary students from other local schools.
Over 900 students from eight area schools have participated intensively in the Field Studies Program since its inception. These students benefit from hands-on, applied learning experiences, and bring their enthusiasm back to their school communities.
Over the years, local students participating in our Field Studies program have worked on research relating to weather, water, plants, butterflies, amphibians, mammals, birds, forestry, and agriculture. Some of these projects are available for the current Field Studies program and can be adapted to school curricula and student interest.
- National Weather Service Cooperative Monitoring Station: Daily collection of weather data at Smokey House Center is transmitted to the National Weather Service (NWS) to help with their local forecasts. The data are entered into an online database for NWS use and are also available to the public to view online through the Cooperative Observer Program. In past projects the Field Studies students predicted the weather for our area each morning. The weather data are also useful for some of the work and research we do at Smokey House Center.
- Stream water quality monitoring: Part of Smokey House Center’s mission is to use natural resources to protect the environment. Just as taking a person’s pulse or temperature can tell you about their overall health, taking certain physical, chemical, and biological measurements in the streams on the property tells us more about the health of the forest and fields on the Smokey House Center property.
- Timber inventory: Smokey House Center is responsible for about 4,000 acres of forested land. We believe in using the trees that grow on this land, but we want to be careful to leave plenty of good trees and good habitat for wildlife. The land is divided into many different compartments for management purposes. We inventoried timber by sampling small plots within each compartment. We collected information on tree diameter, species, and density. All of this information contributed to a better overall understanding of our woods, and helped us carry out sustainable logging and firewood production programs. We also identified and mapped areas for growing trees, areas that are most important to wildlife, and anthropological features such as stone walls, cellar holes, and old fields. We made use of hand-held GPS units, compasses, and computer mapping software to help us in this work.
- Population studies of various amphibians: We monitor the population of stream, terrestrial, and vernal pool breeding salamanders on the Smokey House property. Many amphibians are considered bio-indicators, which means they are very sensitive to changes in their environment and can thus be used as “canaries in the coal mine” to give early indications of environmental stress. We monitor populations for two reasons: to help Smokey House Center manage the land and to watch for declines in populations. Many experts believe there has been a drastic decline in many amphibian populations in the last two decades, with some species even becoming extinct. Our research may provide valuable information about changes in amphibian populations in Vermont.
- Vermont Atlas of Amphibians and Reptiles: The Vermont Atlas establishes baseline data to inform conservation and management decisions. It provides a comprehensive guide to the different species of reptiles and amphibians in all the towns of Vermont. The goal is to identify and record sightings of amphibians that have not been recorded in any given town. As we discovered amphibians in each town, we documented their presence and submitted the records.
- Deer population: Smokey House Center’s mission includes demonstrating sound natural resource management. This study allowed us to calculate a population index that could be used to compare the size of the deer population from year to year. Information about deer wintering areas was also noted and used in planning recreational trails, logging operations, and other uses of the resources on the property.
- Wildlife tracking study: This study was designed to determine which wildlife species are present on Smokey House Center’s property and which habitats they use. This information can be used to inform decisions about forestry projects, recreational use, agricultural operations and development on the property. The study was based on identifying and recording wildlife track and sign along five trails each winter.
- Study Skins: Smokey House Center had a scientific collection permit which allowed us to collect and preserve certain types of animals found dead along the roadside. This collection provides samples for comparison with track and sign found in the field and may provide a useful reference for future naturalists. Students assisted in preparing the study skins and learned a great deal about anatomy and physiology in the process.
- Nesting bird study: This study collected information about nesting birds for the ornithologists at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS). This information includes the species of birds that are nesting in specific locations in Vermont, when they nest, how long the eggs are incubated, and how long they are nesting before they fledge. We found active bird nests and checked them regularly as the birds build their nests, lay and incubated the eggs, and cared for the young. The more data VINS has, the more confident they can be in determining Vermont bird characteristics.
- eBird: This project, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, provided simple tracking of the birds seen anywhere in North America. The cumulative eBird database is used by birdwatchers, scientists, and conservationists who want to know more about the distributions and movement patterns of birds across the continent. We used eBird to record birds observed on Smokey House Center property and other areas of Vermont where we conducted field studies research. We wanted to know which species live on our property, whether they are full or part-year residents, or migrants. This information is helpful in our land management plans.
- Alternative Greenhouse Heating: The Field Studies program was an invaluable aid to the resource managers at Smokey House Center. Students often participated in multiple- or single-season studies to provide them with data to make informed decisions. In one study, Field Studies students monitored the success of a test program to heat our greenhouse with hot water condensed from the wood-fired arch we use for sugaring. We recorded the daily maximum and minimum temperature in the greenhouse, the temperature of the water holding tank in the greenhouse, the soil temperature of the germinating plants, and the frequency at which we boiled sap. This information led to discoveries of how to make the system more efficient and also proved its effectiveness in almost entirely eliminating our need for propane in the greenhouse in the spring!
- Healthy Beef Production: The students of Smokey House Center worked closely with our farm managers to determine the energy inputs required to raise and transport our Angus steers for our customers. The students learned about the system of grass-fed beef, hay production, and carbon budgeting. They used a peer-reviewed scientific study to make a comparison of our carbon emissions with the average feedlot on a basis of pound for pound beef produced. In the end, they found that the feedlot generates six times more carbon. The students then designed and wrote the content for a display to inform our customers of their findings.