For Students at Ohio State Wetland, New Meaning to Swamped by Classes

Suzanne Gray and students wading in water.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Some returning Ohio State University students are finding their classroom all wet, by design. In fact, you might see them in waders.

Five Ohio State courses are meeting at, and in, the Wilma H. Schiermeier Olentangy River Wetland Research Park during autumn semester 2014, part of a plan to increasingly use its 52 acres of marsh and mud, frogs and geese, fish and water for teaching.

The university’s School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR), part of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, manages the wetland complex, which lies near the north edge of Ohio State’s Columbus campus.

Taking classes at the facility “is a real experiential learning process for the students,” said Suzanne Gray, assistant professor of aquatic physiological ecology in SENR. “They’re able to get their hands wet, literally, and I think that’s important and exciting.”

“I know from experience that that is the best way to learn -- it’s to hear something and then be able to see it and touch it and smell it,” said Alayna Dorobek of Fremont, a second-year master’s degree student in fisheries and wildlife science.

Video (2:06): SENR graduate student Alayna Dorobek talks about her research at the Olentangy River Wetland Research Park.

Students at the park can see herons and muskrats, touch carp and cattails, smell wildflowers and naturally decomposing swamp muck. They also can measure water flow, sample biological diversity and document ecological succession, among other in-the-field activities.

The park’s fall courses, all taught through the school, are Stream Ecology, Methods in Aquatic Ecology, Wetland Ecology and Management, two sections of Taxonomy and Behavior of Aquatic Invertebrates, and a fisheries and wildlife science seminar called “Behavioral and Physiological Responses to a Changing World.”

Boardwalks crisscross the park’s experimental wetlands, which include two main 2.5-acre marshes and a 3-acre billabong, or oxbow lake. The Olentangy River, a source of the swamps’ water, flows close by and is used in the courses as well. The modern Heffner Teaching and Research Building holds room for labs and classes.

SENR graduate student Danielle Vent, left, recent Ph.D. graduate and now lecturer Adam Kautza, and Associate Professor Mazeika Sullivan look out on one of the park’s wetlands. (Photo: K.D. Chamberlain, CFAES Communications.)

SENR scientists created the park in 1992, which gained recognition in 2008 as Ohio’s first Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. They use it to study the workings of wetlands, including how wetlands benefit water quality. Protecting and improving water quality is a focus of the school and the college.

Ben Rubinoff of Cincinnati is a third-year student in the environmental science honors program, where he specializes in water science. He said courses at the park help by both talking about a subject and showing it -- up close and also as part of a whole.

“In class, you may learn about an isolated process, like photosynthesis or respiration or the feeding habits of a particular fish, but here, when you go outside, you get to see all these things happening at once. You get to see how they all impact each other,” he said.

“You’re able to see these processes and this complexity all together, so you get an overall comprehensive understanding of wetlands and of aquatic ecosystems in general.”

Video: (3:23): SENR instructors and students discuss wetlands, water quality and the park's benefits to learning.

Mazeika Sullivan, assistant director of SENR, is responsible for overseeing the facility. As an associate professor of aquatic and riparian ecology, he has taught a number of courses there and is teaching or co-teaching two more this fall. He won Ohio State’s Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching last year and said the park is an ideal place to teach.

“It’s a great experience being able to seamlessly integrate teaching and research activities here and to have the students be able to directly take their excitement in the field and put it into context in the classroom, and vice-versa,” he said.

“Teaching science, to me, is all about making connections between theories, concepts and real-world applications in the field.”

The park hosts both research and a growing range of teaching and outreach. Boardwalks like the ones shown here give ready access to the water. (Photo: K.D. Chamberlain, CFAES Communications.)

The park, too, is just a good place to be, Dorobek said.

“It’s surrounded by nature. You have the wetlands, you have the river. It really allows students who are taking classes here to be connected to their environment,” she said.

“We use it not only for classes but for lab work, any experiments, a place to be safe and comfortable. It’s so nice for us to have that kind of a home.”

“It’s amazing that we have this so close to campus,” Rubinoff said. “It’s just a five-minute bike ride away.”

In the course of a year, the park may host more than 160 species of birds, such as this mallard. (Photo: iStock)

The park’s grounds are open to the public, including to other Ohio State students and faculty and staff, from dawn to dusk daily. Admission is free. The park’s main entrance is at 352 W. Dodridge St. The park also can be accessed from the Olentangy Greenways Trail, which runs along the river.

For more information, visit the park’s website at

For students interested in careers working with wetlands and water quality, the school offers undergraduate majors in:

The park provides vital habitat for such amphibians as the green frog, leopard frog and American toad, shown here. (Photo: iStock.)

The college’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster also offers a two-year associate’s degree in Environment and Natural Resources.

The college’s Heffner Family Olentangy River Wetland Research Park “Site Engineer” Endowment Fund supports student employment in the park. The students, both undergraduate and graduate, work to help maintain the area.

For details on donating to the Heffner fund and others in the college, call 614-292-1568 or go to

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CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: 

Mazeika Sullivan

Suzanne Gray