On a warm October day, a group of students hiked to a research site on a rocky ridge at Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve. They got to work measuring 30-foot transects extending in each cardinal direction, noting the nearby species of trees and measuring each trunk’s diameter. They placed hula hoops on the ground and recorded the percentage of the enclosed area covered in vegetation, rock and soil. Raising the hula hoops above their heads, they estimated the proportion of the area covered by tree canopy.

The students’ work might appear tedious, but it’s critical to understanding the impact of climate change on Central Texas ecosystems. By recording today’s baseline conditions, the students provided measurements that later researchers can compare with data collected decades in the future. And by collecting the data themselves, the students in Kim O’Keefe’s Environmental Conservation and Climate Change course learned valuable field research skills.

Student using a tool in the air in Blunn Creek
Student measuring a tree branch with measuring tape wearing St. Edward's shirt and glasses

“The best way to learn about something is to do it,” says O’Keefe, an assistant professor of Biological Sciences. “We’re learning about how the environment is changing with climate change, so we need to go out into the environment and study it in person.” 

The course is a component of the university’s new Environmental Biology and Climate Change major, a degree that prepares students to understand the forces that are remaking ecosystems around the world. The program dives into ecological theory, how climate change affects different organisms, how scientists study these impacts and the social justice dimensions of climate change.

Two students observing nature in Blunn Creek

Eve Dean ’23 says the major combines her loves for the outdoors, data and ecology. Plus, “It’s really hard to study any part of an ecosystem without the context of climate change,” she says. “Nothing is going to matter or make sense without that context. So in every class, we talk about: How are these species changing? What repercussions will this have on humans?”

Students in the program develop data science skills and conduct field research at Wild Basin, Spicewood Ranch and Blunn Creek Preserve. Together, these experiences will prepare them to develop data-driven solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental problem. 

By Robyn Ross