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Jeffrey Norris,
NSF Graduate Fellow

NSF GK-12 Project: University of Missouri-St. Louis
Missouri Science Teaching and Education Partnership (MO-STEP)
URL: http://www.umsl.edu/%7Ebiology/icte/MO-STEP

Thesis Title: Urbanization in Costa Rica and the Structure and Organization of Local and Regional Avian Assemblages
College/University: University of Missouri-St. Louis

Research Advisor: Godfrey Bourne and Bette Loiselle

Degree Sought

University Department and/or Lab
Department of Biology

Research Focus
Ecology, evolution, and systematics.

Description of Research
This study in Costa Rica will represent one of the first, and most comprehensive, to address the effects of urbanization on avifauna in the Neotropics as it includes multiple cities and distinct ecoregions in the analysis. Using remote sensing techniques and GIS, I aim to test theories of species distribution and community assembly along an urbanization gradient in relation to productivity, disturbance, and habitat heterogeneity. I expect avian assemblages in heavily urbanized areas to be nested subsets of larger regional species pools and relatively independent of regional or historical effects. Species turnover between urban core assemblages should be significantly less than the turnover between rural or native fragment assemblages. Furthermore, avian assemblages from different cities and regions at similar points along the urbanization gradient should demonstrate a high degree of similarity in a few key life history characteristics (e.g. geographic distribution, fecundity, and feeding and nesting guilds). Urbanization likely acts as a deterministic filter to regional avian species pools and a description of the assembly patterns would provide not only predictions of avifaunal changes in other urbanizing regions of the Neotropics, but also offer land development guidelines that may benefit a greater number of urban adaptable species.

Given my background in education and my positive experiences with the MO-STEP program, while in Costa Rica I plan to visit local elementary schools (in the afternoon after data collection in each city), present the reasons behind my research, and provide the schools with bird feeders and other materials to motivate students to think about their own urban connections with their surrounding native ecosystems. A true measure of success in terms of disseminating my message will come from demonstrating a change in behavior or attitudes among the students and local people in the cities where I will work. At each school, I will monitor these changes by administering a simple, pre/post–questionnaire in which their local environmental knowledge and perceptions will be collected at the beginning and end of my field work. The same questionnaire will also be given to the students’ parents to compare how knowledge and perceptions of the local, native ecosystem vary between students and adults. I thereby hope to test, as well as reverse the trend in ‘environmental generational amnesia’ whereby the experience with, and exposure to, the natural, native environment decreases with each new generation.

Example of how my research is integrated into my GK-12 experience
It was exceedingly fortunate to have been a MO-STEP fellow for the past three years. The first two years, I worked at McCluer North High School and this past year at McCluer High School. At each school, I worked with 3-4 classes every year. Despite the different atmosphere in each school, my goals, objectives and approach in the two classes has been the same. As a former high school biology teacher, I was interested in incorporating more hands-on inquiry activities or lessons that emphasized critical thinking and the scientific process. Furthermore, I was looking to make a connection between those inquiry activities and topics of interest in my own research: effect of urbanization on native flora and fauna.

During my second year, I developed the Seeds to Wings project which focused lessons and activities on the germination and growth of Missouri native wildflowers which were known butterfly nectar sources. I wanted to provide all students with an inquiry-based activity that not only addressed important ecological topics, but also hinted at activities they could do at their own house as a “backyard” conservation project. Students conducted their own germination investigations from the planning to presentation stage. At both schools, local butterflies were raised in the classroom and the full life cycle from egg, larvae, adult, and back to egg, were observed and studied.

In Spring-Summer 2006, I, along with a high school assistant, established 7 standardized native wildflower gardens at MO-STEP schools and partner institutions to compare the butterfly community at each school (which represents a rough gradient of urban-rural sites). Although initial surveys were incomplete, this same student is planning to conduct more in-depth surveys in summer 2007. Additionally, we may conduct a comparison of soil analyses and plant and floral emergence dates for the 12 plant species found in each garden at each school.

Profile date: July 2007
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