- by Mount Saint Mary College

For first-year students in the Natural Sciences, the Fall 2022 semester consisted of more than just learning in the classroom. As part of the college’s First Year Experience (FYE) program, which fosters success as they transition into Mount Saint Mary College’s community of learners, students took their education to the streets of Newburgh by assisting the Greater Newburgh Parks Conservancy’s (GNPC) tree planting initiative through a tree identification project.

Over the summer, Marichen Montiel Hertling, a Business major at the Mount from Newburgh, N.Y., contacted Lynn Maelia, professor of Chemistry, and Suparna Bhalla, associate professor of Biology, who would be collaborating on first-year coursework through the FYE program. Hertling, who served as an Environmental Justice Fellow in Newburgh, discussed the GNPC’S tree planting efforts and how the college could get involved with this initiative. 

Mount Saint Mary College science students researched trees in the City of Newburgh in October, checking the distance between them, location, size, and type. Elizabeth Harper, associate professor of Biology, worked with the students. 

Through the FYE program, students were assigned to various learning communities, where they would share two courses with the same group of students and take part in Community Based Learning (CBL) events that were incorporated into their coursework. 

Students in Maelia and Bhalla’s learning community took part in two CBL events to complete the identification project. The first invited Kathy Lawrence, a member of the GNPC board of directors, to talk to them about the tree planting initiative; environmental justice and the advantages of urban trees; the siting, location, and planting of urban trees; and the environmental justice fellowship in Newburgh.

“We wanted to use trees as our FYE theme to get students to think about trees in ways they never did before: the advantages, the biodiversity, the importance for the ecosystem, and the environmental justice associated with trees,” explained Maelia.

The professors followed up with an additional CBL event: a tree identification project that would provide data for the GNPC’s tree planting initiative. The project spanned both Biological and Chemical Principles courses and was incorporated into their laboratory sessions.

In Chemical Principles, students went to several sites along Powell Avenue where the Parks Conservancy was planning to plant some trees. They collected soil samples, and brought them back to the lab for testing, a process they had previously learned in class.

Meanwhile, in Biological Principles, students went to the streets around the college to assess the tree “situation.” They looked at existing trees: identifying the tree species, measuring the circumference, estimating the height, and measuring the proximity to various objects. Through this information, they assessed whether the existing trees were appropriately placed.

Biology students also assessed locations on street lawns where new trees could be planted, measuring the spaces and proximity to existing corners, signs, and utilities. They went on to make recommendations for what trees should be planted, taking the size of the tree and the desire for biodiversity into consideration.

Students in both courses have entered the data into a spreadsheet, which will be shared with the GNPC to assist in their efforts to plant 4,000 trees in the next two years.

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