Wander through Putnam Park this time of year and you will see vibrant fall colors, hundreds of trees, plants and bird species and, if you are lucky, deer or other wildlife.
You also will likely see Blugolds immersed in research and other science-based projects as they use the 230-acre nature reserve that runs through the heart of UW-Eau Claire’s campus and area neighborhoods as an outdoor classroom.
“Putnam Park really is a treasure,” says Dr. Tali Lee, a professor of biology. “It offers so many learning opportunities for our students right here on campus, something that is not found on many campuses. It is of tremendous educational value since it is so close and as a designated natural area it is under some protection.”
In other words, UW-Eau Claire is using the 230 acres of mostly forested land just as lumberman Henry C. Putnam had hoped when he donated it to the city of Eau Claire 100+ years ago, requesting then that it remain in its natural state and serve as a botanical laboratory and park in perpetuity.
It was in 1957 — 60 years ago — that the city transferred ownership of Putnam Park to UW-Eau Claire, asking that it remain in its natural state.
Twenty years later, in 1976, the state of Wisconsin designated it as a state natural area.
The only urban state natural area in Wisconsin, Putnam Park is home to more than 400 plant species (a few are endangered or threatened), 100 bird species, 23 mammal species, and six reptile and amphibian species, and five fish species.
It serves as an important migratory corridor for birds, and provides habitat for wildlife. There also are a variety of soil types, several seepage springs and bedrock exposures within the park.
For decades, the park has been a learning site for thousands of Blugolds, who use the natural arboretum for research and study, bringing science to life just steps from their classrooms.
“Multiple programs on campus use it as an exceptional and accessible natural learning space to write, reflect and conduct field research,” says Dr. Paula Kleintjes Neff, professor of biology and chair of the biology department. “It is an educational gem, one of the many attractions that drew me to this campus.”
While faculty from many academic disciplines incorporate Putnam Park in their curriculum, it is professors in the sciences — biology in particular — who regularly use the natural area as a central part of their instruction.
“We are so lucky that we have Putnam Park right here because it provides us such a compelling and interesting natural study,” says Lee, noting that this fall the Foundations of Biological Inquiry class she teaches is spending time sampling the tree communities in the park.
Lee’s class, a required course for all biology majors, is a hands-on, laboratory and field-based course designed to introduce students to the methods and skills used by scientists to study biology.
Putnam Park provides the perfect classroom setting for this kind of class, she says.
“The students actually experience ‘doing’ science in this class,” Lee says. “One of our main activities is something we have done for years in our biology curriculum and that is to investigate patterns in tree assemblages in Putnam Park.”
The main question students work to answer during the class is “Do the tree communities differ on the upper compared to the lower terraces of Putnam Park?”
The students’ work focuses on the two main terraces along the Chippewa River.
The lower terrace (adjacent to the riverbank) and the upper terrace (located further away from the river) are conspicuously different, Lee says.
Lee challenges students to qualitatively describe the main differences they observe in Putnam Park, including observations of the tree communities, the understory communities, the physical environment, and their deductions about disturbances and stresses as possible causal agents.
Students then follow up on their observations and hypotheses by sampling the tree assemblages in Putnam Park using one of several standard ecological methods, allowing them to test their hypotheses regarding how tree assemblages differ between the upper and lower terraces.
Already this fall, students set up the plots and collected data, including identifying the species and measuring the diameters of the trees in their plots.
“Students are learning how to statistically analyze the data and to describe the results both graphically and in writing,” Lee says of her class.
This kind of hands-on learning builds students’ knowledge base and research skills, which will help them in other courses and in their future careers, she says.
In addition to studying the plant and animal life within Putnam Park, science students also actively work to preserve the land, experiences that also can help them in the future as scientists or citizens.
For example, students have helped to remove the invasive species Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard from the park, and have identified strategies for better managing them.
"Students see these plants in guides, hear about them in class, and handle the plants in the field," Kleintjes Neff says. "They do real conservation work so they know how to be better stewards of the land.
“A goal for me is that long after they've graduated, they'll have a better understanding of science and conservation so they will volunteer for non-profits such as The Nature Conservancy, or they'll have careers that were inspired by their experiences here."
Top photo caption: Blugolds Conner Krattiger (left) and Dylan Glumac-Berberich work with Dr. Tali Lee in Putnam Park as part of a biology field class.