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How and Why to Build a Biology Program Around Outdoor Labs

When Dr. Brad Balukjian noticed that introductory biology students lacked experience in nature, he introduced the idea of local fieldwork.


Brad Balukjian, PhD

Director of Natural History & Sustainability Program, Merritt College, Oakland, CA

PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management; BA in Island Biogeography

Today, a running theme in biology courses at Merritt College in Oakland, California, is simply this: Spend more class time outside! That is thanks, in large part, to Brad Balukjian, PhD, director of the school’s new Natural History and Sustainability (NHS) program, which he and a few colleagues developed in 2018.

Trail hiking and collecting nature specimens is not just fun, he says. It supports Merritt College’s long-standing commitment to social justice as well as to its student body, of which more than 80% are people of color, mainly Latinx and Black. Historically, this population has been underrepresented in the sciences—and is all too familiar with being shut off from nature through systemic inequities, such as a lack of public transportation to parks and other nature sites, says Balukjian.

In fact, the professor first floated the idea of the NHS program as a way to help the two-year community college’s students prepare for practical (and local) careers in the sciences. “I realized how many nonacademic job opportunities exist in the Bay Area,” he says. For example, he encourages students to consider future work as a park ranger, in a sustainability-focused local organization, as a community garden manager, or as an environmental consultant.

One challenge the professor did not predict when developing the courses with his colleagues: “Most of my students had never explored the outdoors,” he says. “It’s jarring for some of them to be out hiking in the hills and getting their hands in the dirt. [Some students] who grew up to the sound of gunshots were scared out of their minds when they heard a small animal in the bushes. It was totally foreign to them.”

To help them acclimate, Balukjian takes students through a series of labs and activities—some involving the technology that today’s students crave.


“I want students to know why nature is important, to be able to differentiate between opinion and fact when it comes to issues of renewable resources. That doesn’t happen in the rarefied air of academia. It happens when students go out into the field, have fun, and learn how to solve problems.”

— Brad Balukjian, PhD

Course: BIOLOGY 29 Biology of the Living World

Course description: Students compare and contrast features of living organisms in the context of their evolutionary history and adaptations to their environments. Apply principles of scientific inquiry: differentiate theory from a hypothesis, fact from opinion in regard to biological sciences. Students will also examine and explain the exchange of biomass and energy at various ecological levels, and identify the diverse forms of animals, plants, fungi, protists, and microbes in the context of ecological roles.

See resources shared by Brad Balukjian, PhD

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5 ways to help city students grow to love nature

Each session of Biology of the Living World is split 50/50, with 75 minutes in the classroom and 75 minutes in outdoor lab time in the nearby Leona Canyon Regional Open Space Preserve. For some of the students, the course provides the first time for them to take a close, scientific look at the natural world right outside their door—and it can be a real eye-opener. Balukjian employs different tactics to help them connect and learn, including the five outlined here.

Explain the health perks of studying nature

Balukjian begins the semester by asking students a fundamental question: “Why is nature important?” They write their answers on “super-huge-size sticky notes,” which he hangs on the wall so that they are visible to everyone. What he hopes to see come up is the concept that “nature is good for me.” In any case, he uses the exercise to introduce students to research on the health benefits of direct exposure to nature. “Hiking, walking—or even sitting and staring at a tree—lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol and improves mental and physical health in multiple ways,” he explains.

Introduce nature-related technology

Mobile devices are ubiquitous in our society—and Balukjian uses that fact to his advantage. He introduces students to iNaturalist, an app that allows them to take pictures of organisms and then have them identified by a worldwide group of biologists. Students are responsible for making at least 10 observations on the app throughout the semester.

Balukjian also has students take an analog approach and record observations in a field notebook that can include sketches as well as handwritten notes. These are collected and reviewed after each lab.

Tackle a local environmental concern

One of Balukjian’s labs focuses on finding an invasive species (meaning a species not native to the local environment) that is harming the local natural landscape. In particular, his students visit Leona Canyon to learn how to identify Cape Ivy—an invasive species from South Africa. “Our lab had two parts: a pre- and a post-,” he says. “In the pre-, students used Esri mapping software to map the portion of the park invaded by the ivy, and [they] recorded their observations of the environmental conditions in their field notebooks. They then hand-pulled the plant from the extent of the study area. We returned six weeks later to document the species diversity following removal of the invader, noting any new native species that had sprouted, as well as regions where the ivy had returned.”

Examine local plant and insect adaptations

Ecological theory holds that native plant communities will hold more native insect species than non-native plant communities, because insects and plants have adapted together over millions of years.

To test this hypothesis, Balukjian had his class sample insects found in two different plant communities: (1) a cluster of coyote brush, a seminal species in the coastal scrub plant community; and (2) French broom, an invasive plant in the same coastal scrub community. “Using a variety of insect-collecting techniques—sweep netting with aspirators, pitfall traps, pan traps—students collected insects from both types of plants and then identified them in the lab to compare species abundance and diversity and to test the above hypothesis,” Balukjian says.

Study how seasons affect local species

Phenology is the change in an organism’s appearance or behavior based on the seasons. To examine this, Balukjian’s students engaged in a semester-long study of the phenology of four native plants in Leona Canyon park: coast live oak, Pacific/Western poison oak, toyon, and coyote brush. Every week, students recorded and described the condition of fruits, flowers, and leaves of these four species—along with air and soil temperatures—to look for patterns in seasonality and to examine changes in phenology with temperature. “While not an experimental study, this kind of descriptive natural history is essential for future hypothesis-testing,” says Balukjian.

Ultimately, he adds, every little bit of outdoor exposure adds up to a greater understanding of nature—which is good for the students and for the world as a whole. “Studying life is cool for its own sake,” he says. “I’m glad I’m helping to put them at ease and enjoy nature.”

On the horizon

Balukjian is seeking to do more to connect with local businesses that might recruit his graduates. His department is currently in the process of securing approval for three new certificates (credentialed) programs in the fields of conservation and resource management, urban agroecology, and natural history and resources.

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