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Research: The purpose of my PhD project is to determine if birds prefer to forage for insects on native tree species as opposed to non-native trees. Several previous studies have focused on the fact that insect biomass is higher on native plants than on alien plants. Most birds, even those that eat seeds as adults, feed their young caterpillars. Caterpillars provide a high energy food source in a convenient carrying package that can be easily feed to baby birds. If native vegetation, and its associated insects, attracts a greater number of birds, much of the general public could be encouraged to actively participate in creating a suburban environment that is usable by a large variety of insect and bird species, as well as appealing to humans. The average homeowner does not want to encourage insects to live on their plants. However, encouraging backyard birds is a billion dollar business. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Recreation over 52 million Americans consider themselves, at least to some degree, to be bird watchers. I have been comparing bird foraging frequency and caterpillar biomass on native and non-native landscape trees in suburban and park areas in Southern New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. Data collection began in the Spring of 2007. At each site bird counts are conducted by both myself and volunteers on ten different species of commonly planted landscape trees. Simultaneously, caterpillar biomass for each tree is determined by collecting frass (caterpillar droppings). Frass is weighed and the individual pellets counted for each 24-hour period during bird counts.
In the classroom: Since I started my graduate career, I have spent a significant part of every semester TAing or teaching introductory courses for Entomology. The GK-12 program offered me a fantastic opportunity to adapt my teaching to high school students, and to learn how to work with an age group that I had no previous experience with.
Working with Lisa Currie has been a blast. Ninth grade integrated science provides the students with a general overview of physics, chemistry and Earth science. In addition, Lisa has facilitated the addition of a little entomology and soil science into the regular curriculum.
This year, we tied soils and insects into conservation of matter and cycles in the hope of linking classroom labs to the world that the kids live in every day. I am a firm believer that science needs a bit of a WOW! factor to keep kids interested, but it also needs to be linked to everyday life to be truly comprehended. Pet cockroaches and sorting through dirt for worms and insect are a memorable link to real science in the classroom. Additionally, the students worked on a two week renewable energy project that related their everyday choices to global issues.