Northwoods partnership benefits today's climate research and tomorrow's scientists

October 2, 2012

For the second year in a row, UW-Madison researcher Ankur Desai traveled to Wisconsin’s north woods in September, partnering with the College of Menominee Nation to bring students into the field as climate researchers.

UW-Madison professor Ankur Desai leads a class with the College of Menominee Nation
Professor Ankur Desai, right, talks with students in
the Forest and Climate Leaders in Menominee and
the Environment course. Photo credit Dong Hua.

The multi-day Forest and Climate Leaders in Menominee and the Environment (For-CLIMATE) course, led by Desai, invites College of Menominee Nation students to join his lab’s field research in northern Wisconsin.

The students help take measurements from high-tech instruments that monitor the surface-atmosphere exchange of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. This data helps Desai and his team of researchers better understand how ecosystems modify the climate, and vice versa – details critical to improving predictions of climate change.

The idea for the class was born when Desai, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and a faculty affiliate of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, received a five-year National Science Foundation grant in 2010 for his research in global change. The grant included an outreach component that supports the field course.

“It made sense to seek a way to better connect my field research with the residents of the state,” Desai says. “I strongly favor the Wisconsin Idea.”

The College of Menominee Nation, a global leader in sustainable forestry, proved to be a perfect match for the initiative. According to Desai, after the first For-CLIMATE course in 2011, both the UW team and the College of Menominee Nation students walked away with new knowledge.

“I think the presenters and graduate students learned as much from the community college students as the students did from us,” Desai says. “We gained an appreciation for the cultural perspectives of the Menominee about land, forests and change.”

Students in the course gain practical skills and hands-on training as scientists and also discuss career opportunities and potential barriers they may face as they transition from college.

UW-Madison professor Ankur Desai leads a class with the College of Menominee Nation
The group explored Desai's field research sites and
helped take measurements. Photo credit Dong Hua.

“My hope is that the simple act of exposure, in a field-based setting, provides that first taste to some College of Menominee Nation students who might go on to careers in science,” Desai says.

To engage students, Desai and his team emphasize the importance of local knowledge in scientific inquiry. According to Desai, many of the students already have strong expertise in some areas of natural science, giving the community a leg up in global change research.

“Environmental knowledge is more than ivory tower scientists spouting universal truths at the populace,” Desai says. “Hypotheses don’t form in a vacuum – they are guided by our view of nature around us. Recognizing this is the first step to doing good science.”

Amanda Lucas is a senior majoring in journalism and environmental studies.