Wander through Eau Claire’s 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 UW-Eau Claire students immersed in research and other science-based projects as they use the 230-acre nature reserve that runs through the heart of the university’s campus and area neighborhoods as an outdoor classroom.
“Putnam Park really is a treasure,” said university biology professor Tali Lee. “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-plus 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.
The park serves as an important migratory corridor for birds and provides habitat for wildlife. The park also is home to a variety of soil types, several springs and bedrock exposures.
For decades, the park has been a learning site for thousands of UW-Eau Claire students 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,” said Paula Kleintjes Neff, a biology professor and chairwoman 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,” said 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 that kind of class, she said.
“The students actually experience ‘doing’ science in this class,” Lee said. “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?”
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 from the river) are conspicuously different, Lee said.
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 said of her class.