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For more information on the Undergraduate Research/Creative Activity Fund contact Brandy Chaffee, Development Director for the College of Arts & Sciences.
Enhancing Undergraduate Education
Every aspect of a college education involves learning, synthesizing, and applying aspects of theory that inform our understanding of the world. These theories provide a framework for considering new ideas and confronting the world as we find it, instead of how we wish it to be.
One of the most stimulating challenges students experience during their years in college is taking their understanding of a theory and applying it to their area of study. Often students find it is in these moments, when they are forced to deal with real scenarios in their work, that their understanding of a subject expands rapidly.
Jason "Jay" Boulanger poses with the subject of his study. Antlers can tell scientists a lot about the life of deer.
In an effort to produce more of those experiences, a new program designed to encourage imaginative projects and innovative research in the College of Arts & Sciences kicked off this spring. The A&S Undergraduate Research/Creative Activity Fund (URCAF) was created to provide students with the kinds of experiences that enhance their learning.
The application process is competitive, with students and faculty members collaborating to write up a proposal and submit it to the college. This year’s projects include research on the evolution of galaxy alignment, college student stress and health, and analysis of poetry by Simone Weil and Gustavo Gutierrez, to name a few.
Research in Action
Jason “Jay” Boulanger, an Assistant Professor of Biology, is leading a project titled Factors Related to Deer Health in North Dakota. Many hunters may already be aware of dramatic changes in in the number of available hunting licenses in North Dakota in recent years.
In 2009, the state made more than 144,000 total deer licenses available to hunters. By 2014, the number of available licenses dropped to 48,000—the lowest level since 1980. At the same time, interest in hunting remained constant. In 2014, for example, more than 68,000 deer-gun hunters applied for licenses, with many of those requesting one of the 18,700 antlered deer licenses.
“Anecdotally, I am hearing disappointment among deer hunters regarding fewer deer seen on the landscape and low numbers of available deer licenses,” says Boulanger.
According to Marty Egeland, an Outreach Biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish (NDGF) Department, deer populations in North Dakota have fluctuated intensely in the last several years for a few reasons. “We had unprecedented deer populations up to 2008 and 2009. There was a lot of habitat available, and millions of acres of [conservation reserve program] land, out there.”
Where had all these deer come from? According to Egeland, a batch of positive environmental factors created the right conditions for a population explosion. “There were two perfect storms that occurred inside of a decade,” says Egeland. “Everything lined-up to have big deer populations, but when it crashed—it crashed.”
With lots of available land to roam, food plentiful, and moderate winters, the deer population grew until it threatened to get out of hand. There were so many deer, in fact, they presented a problem with degradation of farms and businesses. In response, NDGF had to thin the herd. “We increased license numbers tremendously,” says Egeland.
Predictably, what followed was the inherent unpredictability of three harsh North Dakota winters. The deer population crashed, and the economic ripples continue to play out across the state.
Understanding these cycles is an important part of what the NDGF does, continually evaluating the deer population and looking for trends. NDGF big game biologists are always involved in planning, research, data analysis and outreach to better inform management of the state’s deer—charismatic animals cherished by many North Dakotans.
Since 2000, NDGF has been collecting deer heads in an effort to monitor chronic wasting disease (CWD), a contagious disease of the central nervous system that is always fatal to members of the deer family. CWD was diagnosed in a southwestern North Dakota mule deer buck in 2009. With heads in hand, NDGF staff collected biological data, including antler beam measurements, from just under 1,000 North Dakota white-tailed deer and mule deer bucks. Deer antler metrics have been used as an index of deer and herd health. In general, larger beam diameters are associated with healthier deer.
Recently, Shay Erickson, a senior from Thief River Falls, Minnesota, was selected as a student assistant for the project. His first task will be to help review current research on the subject, then analyze the data to determine if there are applications for North Dakota Deer management.
“If we can discern a relationship between winter severity, geographic area, and deer health,” says Boulanger, “these data could be used, in part, to prioritize management efforts in areas of most need across North Dakota.”
Boulanger and Erickson's work on the project could lead to a poster at a conference, or a published article in a peer-reviewed journal. As well as providing valuable networking opportunities, these experiences will give Erickson, a Fisheries & Wildlife biology major, an advantage in a competitive job market.
“This is a remarkable research opportunity for this student to work with NDGF professionals outside the classroom on a real-world, high profile wildlife issue that has potential to inform better management,” says Boulanger.
A Culture of Exploration
Funding undergraduate research and creative projects is one way the College of Arts & Sciences intends to develop a supportive teaching environment, and be a model of exemplary practices for students. Doing so will not only improve undergraduate education, but can inspire learning and exploration from all corners of the college.
The College of Arts & Sciences asks you to consider supporting programs like the Undergraduate Research/Creative Activity Fund. It is one more way alumni can make a significant impact on student success.
By Craig Garaas-Johnson