Friday, January 11, 2013

Student Film Festival: The Horrors of Invasive Plants

For those floraphiles out there who are also cinephiles, this post is for you.

Georgia Tech Students Study Streamside Urban Restoration

The Atlanta Botanical Garden recently played host to a mini-film festival.  The filmmakers were Georgia Tech students enrolled in Dr. Cara Gormally’s Biology 1511 laboratory.  The films capped a semester-long project investigating the biological effects of the Urban Habitat Restoration Project[1] at Mason Mill Park, part of an initiative to remove invasive species and restore native habitats in public parks and other areas in metro-Atlanta.  The class was divided into three groups tasked with generating a research question and a laboratory experiment designed to investigate it.  The students then wrote up their findings.  Finally, each group made a short educational film explaining a couple of concepts central to their research.  The films had to be narrative and were graded on their educational and entertainment values.

A number of people with a special interest in urban habitat restoration attended the screening:  David Butler, Dekalb County Greenspace Environmental Manager; Sally Sears, Executive Director of the South Fork Conservancy; and Dennis Krusac, Endangered Species Specialist at USDA Forest Service and Director of the Greater Atlanta Pollinator Partnership (GAPP).  Jenny Cruse-Sanders, Director of Conservation and Research at the Atlanta Botanial Garden introduced the films.  Marc Merlin, Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern, was also present.

The English ivy (Hedera helix) at Mason Mill made a strong impression on these students, and, according to Dr. Gormally, most were unaware that it is an invasive plant.  Whether due to its ability to outcompete every other species or simply its dark, leafy charisma all three groups chose to profile English ivy.

Without further ado, here are the films.

Biology Nightly

Filmmakers/Authors:  Elizabeth Burns, Tyler Clenney, Angela Como, Seth Dubin, Alex Huhman, JJ Netter, Kathryn Martin, Graham Sweeney

Paper title:  The effect of the invasive species, Hedera helix, versus the native species, Vitis rotundifolia, on soil microbial communities

Research question:  Do invasive plants affect the microbial communities in their root zones?  If so, does this have anything to do with their success as a competitor?

Floraphile review:  This newscast format features some professional-looking graphics and person-on-the-street interviews from the Georgia Tech campus.  What makes the former teacher in me want to stand up and cheer is that these students listened to the input from the audience and revised their film.  In this final version they define their terms, include material about how you can rid yourself of invasive species and suggest plants to use instead of English ivy. 

Audience questions/comments:  The students found more species of bacteria present in English ivy’s rhizosphere, and Dr. Jenny Cruse-Sanders encouraged the students to identify the bacteria. 

Bio Minute News

Filmmakers/Authors:  Laura Boyle, Meredith Christianson, Jessica Huynh, Drake Lee-Patterson, Diane Lin, Bonnie Rowland, Emily Slater

Paper title:  The Effects of Restoration on the Diversity of Species Present in the Soil Seed Bank at Mason Mill Park

Research question:  Does the seed bank (natural storage of seeds, often dormant, within the soil of most ecosystems) of a restored area have a greater diversity of seeds than that of an unrestored area? To assess the success of the restoration of native species in Mason Mill Park and understand the effect of invasive species on soil seed banks, this group examined the seed abundance and diversity of the seed banks within three different plots.

Floraphile review:  With this film we have a blending of genres:  newscast + horror film.  A monster, English ivy, is on the loose and attacking native plants: shading them out, taking their nutrients, and choking them in vines.  A very spirited performance of “English ivy” provides an excellent overview of how this invasive species displaces native species.  The revised version of the film is more informative and makes a wise substitute of the Southeast’s super invader, Kudzu, for the California scourge, ice plant. 

Audience questions/comments:  Dennis Krusac of the US Forest Service urged to the students to germinate the seeds they collected so that they can identify the plant species and learn what percentage of the seeds are still viable after years spent in the shade of English ivy and other invasives.

Felix, Killer of Hedera helix

Filmmakers/Authors:  Katie Fiedler, Sarah Gould, Chris Harwell, Meera Kuntawala, Riz Rafi, Kyle Sexton, Casey Smith, Mary Ann Thaliath, Neha Zaer 

Paper Title:  Functional Traits of Hedera helix compared to Vitis rotundifolia and Smilax rotundifolia

Research question: Why is English ivy such a good competitor?  This group compared Hedera helix leaves with those of two native species, muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia) and roundleaf greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia).  They found that ivy has larger leaves, covers more ground, has a greater biomass and the leaves themselves have a higher nitrogen content than the two native species. 

Floraphile's review:  Felix, Killer of Hedera helix is a great spoof of Dexter, the TV show about a serial killer who preys on serial killers.  It probably got the biggest laughs.  Kudos to the filmmakers for working factual information into the dialogue, and to Meera Kuntawala for her megalomaniacal "English Ivy." 

Audience questions/comments:  Do you think people would quit planting English ivy if they knew what a scourge it is?  How do you get rid of it?  What should you plant instead?  What can serve as replacement for this seemingly maintenance-free groundcover? 

Students Embrace Native Aesthetic

Student comments:  The students said repeatedly that they appreciated doing a “real” lab rather than following a set of instructions toward a known outcome.  They also felt that devising their own research question, from a real-world situation like the Mason Mill Park restoration, gave them more investment in their research.  While working in a large group was sometimes challenging, finding times when they all could meet, for instance, the students thought the group project instilled the idea that science is collaboration, not a lone scientist gazing into a microscope.  A number of students were keen to remove English ivy from their campus.  Its omnipresence made it possible for students to film on campus, but it also got them thinking about the landscaping choices in their immediate surroundings.

Final remarks:  You learn just how well you know a thing when you are asked to teach it to someone else.   Of course, it’s not just how well you know a subject, but whether you are able to convey that knowledge to a particular audience.  You must internalize the perspective of your audience:  What do they know?  What knowledge and conceptual storehouse can I draw upon?  How can I draw on this storehouse to best convey a new set of ideas? 

An analogy that two of the films used was English Ivy as alien monster.  In this context I think the analogy is apt.  First, it’s quite a familiar narrative: From 1950s monster movies to episodes of Fringe, stronger, faster, smarter aliens come from outer space or another dimension to take over the world.  Second, English ivy is a species alien to this continent, and it really does compete like mad, engulfing native habitat and converting a varied landscape into a uniform sea of ivy, even bringing down trees in its wake.  Like “English Ivy” says in Felix, Killer of Hedera Helix, “I’m just better than all of them!”—better at ecological domination, that is.

So, for a teaching tool, the film was a great assignment.  It reinforced newly acquired knowledge and taught the students how to convey specialized knowledge to a general audience.  The hoped-for happy result is that the students will become scientists who can talk intelligibly about their work with regular folk. 

[1] Urban Habitat Restoration Project partners:  The Atlanta Botanical Garden Inc., Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, DeKalb County Natural Resource Management Office, Atlanta Audubon Society, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, National Wildlife Federation, Butterfly Conservation Initiative and Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Funding sources:  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Fish and Wildlife Foundation/Georgia Power (Southern Company) provide funding through their Five Star Grant program.

1 comment:

  1. Well done! I so appreciate these efforts!