U-M students gain hands-on field experience in natural woodlands

March 26, 1997
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—They hike in heat and rain, sometimes simultaneously, as they tramp through Michigan’s forests. University of Michigan students from the “Woody Plants” class have been studying trees in their natural habitats for more than 30 years, regardless of the weather conditions.

Taught by U-M biology Prof. Warren Wagner and forest ecology Prof. Burton Barnes, the course combines lectures, laboratory work and weekly treks to Ann Arbor forests, the Highland Recreation Area to the east and south to Milan.

“Students enjoy getting out in the woods,” Barnes said. “It’s obvious that you can’t study a 100-foot-tall oak tree in the classroom.”

Wagner and Barnes designed the course in 1965, emphasizing field work that demonstrates to students the diverse habitats and national woody plant species. Collections of leaves, twigs, buds, and fruits are available in the “Woody Plants Lab” for students to study seven days a week. Students learn scientific and common names of more than 180 species, their form, bark, and the site conditions where they live.

Jacqueline Courteau, who took “Woody Plants” three years ago and became the class’ teaching assistant last year, said the course “opened my eyes” in terms of the diverse species and colors of trees.

“It’s a fun class. I can go out with people and talk to them about interesting trees. It’s a skill you can use every time you are outdoors,” Courteau said.

Courteau said the field trips also allow her to get into the woods and observe the seasonal changes.

Harold Zald, a fourth-year senior in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, enrolled in Woody Plants two years ago and found the class “special.”

“This class is not about how to make money or how to memorize some useless facts that can never be applied to your daily life,” Zald said. “It’s about how we should reach out to the world and learn why nature is organized the way it is.”

Zald claims Prof. Barnes and Wagner as the two most exciting teachers on campus. He said their enthusiasm in teaching encourages students to research different names and structure of plants on their own.

“Some people even study samples of plants collected during the field trips at home,” Zald said. “Their housemates often find them weird when they see pile of twigs and leaves on the kitchen table.”

Wagner believes “Woody Plants” helps students develop a sense of appreciation for nature and the beauty of life. He said the course reminds University students that learning in a natural setting is as important as their work on computers and in classrooms.

“I fear that life is centered around computers,” Wagner said. “People are going to lose touch with the world. We do a good job in ‘Woody Plants’ to get people to discuss the beauty of waterfalls and all kinds of trees.”

Both Wagner and Barnes said the course also prepares students for the variety of conditions they will encounter when they conduct field work in disciplines like archaeology and anthropology as well as biology and natural resources. Students become used to the less than ideal conditions.

“Students get wet and hot,” Barnes said. “There are bugs and rainstorms. That’s what field work is all about.”

Prof. Warren Wagner