By Rose Schnabel (’24)
Fall 2023 will bring the 8th edition of Dr. Heather Reynolds’ course: Biodiverse-City! The Art & Science of Green Infrastructure. Students in the course will learn about human/ecosystem interactions in urban areas and work with one of seven Bloomington partners to make the city more sustainable.
In Dr. Reynolds’ Biodiverse-City course, your assignments may range from fieldwork on Kirkwood Avenue in downtown Bloomington one week, to a meeting with the urban forester at the City of Bloomington Parks and Recreation the next. For Reynolds, getting out of the classroom is an essential part of learning about ecosystems and biodiversity. She’s taught the course for seven years and has always prioritized field work and community engagement as well as weekly student-led discussions of scientific literature.
Officially, BIOL-L326 Biodiverse-City is an upper-level Biology elective. Students from any major are encouraged to participate, though, as the only prerequisite is a 100-level Biology or Environmental Sciences course. In the past, students studying Geography, Interior Design, Psychology, and Sustainability Studies, among other majors, have all succeeded in the course.
The idea for the course came from one of Reynolds’ previous classes: The City as Ecosystem, which had one unit devoted to biodiversity and urban ecosystem functioning. Student feedback consistently pointed to this unit as the most engaging and impactful.
At the same time, Reynolds found her work as a plant ecologist continuously building more connections with the social sciences. Social systems and ecological systems are deeply intertwined in urban areas, making cities “a really critical place to get the ecology right,” said Reynolds. At first glance, curbside native plantings, street tree coverage, and greenways may not seem to have an impact on your daily life, but they influence mental and physical health, how hot it gets in the summer, and who can walk to work or school.
For Reynolds, Biodiverse-City is about “teaching ecology in a context that students can relate to.” To do this, she divides the course into three sections: biodiversity and ecosystems, ecosystem services, and green infrastructure, putting each of these topics into an urban context. In the first section, students learn about how ecosystems are structured, what they do, and key roles of biodiversity. In the second, they explore the regulating, provisioning, supporting, and cultural services that biodiverse ecosystems provide to their communities. The final section explores urban infrastructure and how urban ecosystems help to make cities more sustainable and resilient.
The most unique feature of Reynolds’ course is its engaged learning aspect. That is, it’s one thing to memorize a diagram of ecosystem services from a biology textbook but another thing entirely to see those services at play in your community. Reynolds partners with seven Bloomington-area organizations that relate to ecosystems and biodiversity in some way, among them: Monroe County Identify and Reduce Invasive Species, the City of Bloomington Parks and Recreation’s forestry, preserves, and urban greenspace units, and more.