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Students perform work along Stroubles Creek.

New course gives students hands-on experience in ecological restoration

Stroubles Creek, which runs through the Virginia Tech campus, has been listed as federally impaired for more than two decades. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality says one of the top reasons is its lack of riparian restoration buffer, a strip of vegetation that improves water quality by filtering pollutants, absorbing stormwater runoff and lowering surface water temperatures.

In an effort to teach students about ecological restoration and give them hands-on experience, the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences created a new course, taught for the first time in 2023: Ecological Restoration Field Practicum.

The course, which took place during spring break, was co-taught by Assistant Professor Leighton Reid and Tom Saxton, who earned his bachelor’s degree in natural resource conservation and forestry from Virginia Tech in 2014. Students were given hands-on experience in designing, implementing, and monitoring complex ecological restoration projects

“I’ve been working on Stroubles Creek restoration since I was a senior,” Saxton said. “I’ve had a vision since the start in 2014 to have a more dedicated student course so they could see all of these projects we have going on and be a part of it.”

Henry Coddington, a junior majoring in Ecological Restoration, found this course appealing because of the field experience. “I wanted to take part in this course because it pertains heavily to my major, and I have always preferred practical, hands-on teaching methods to lectures,” Coddington said. “I am from Blacksburg, so any class focused on helping endangered or impaired ecosystems in the town is very appealing and important to me.”

Students perform work along Stroubles Creek.

Throughout the week, students learned about the projects taking place at the creek, invasive vegetation management, site preparation techniques, and vegetation restoration techniques. They also discussed collaborating with stakeholders, challenges to restoration, how to assess negative impacts of restoration, and possible conflicts.

They also took part in some of the restoration effort, working in diverse teams while interacting with professional contract crews. Throughout the week they planted bare root seedlings and installed shelters, inspected the plants, and installed live stakes.

“My favorite part of the course was getting to learn about bare-root seedling planting methods, as well as the many enlightening discussions on various topics,” Coddington said. “This course helped prepare me for my future career by providing me with ample opportunities to apply myself in restoration work. It also helped emulate what a job in the field is like on a weekly basis.”

“I was impressed with the 17 students,” Saxton said. “They were very engaged. It actually gave me a lot of hope for the future generation of natural resource professionals and restoration ecologists because of how engaged they were and interested in learning with an open mind.”

The students were also tasked with creating a restoration plan for a degraded site found in the real-world. They presented their projects at the end of the semester. The hope is those will receive funding in the future.

“Ecological restoration is likely the fastest growing sector in the natural resource field,” Saxton said. “In my opinion, it is a matter of survival that we invest more here and we are advancing the science and implementation of ecological restoration because we have a lot of impacts as humans on the planet and our population is growing. We want a resilient planet to pass on to future generations.”

Students perform work along Stroubles Creek.