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Penn professor Mike McGraw introduced a new environmental studies course, “Ornithology,” on the study of birds. | Courtesy of Profberger at Wikimedia Commons

Finally, every student’s dream to have class outside has come true — at least for some students in Penn's College of Liberal and Professional Studies.

Penn professor Mike McGraw’s new environmental studies course, “Ornithology,” or the study of birds, is combining graduate students’ love for nature with a more acute set of knowledge to use in the great outdoors.

“We live fully immersed in a bird-inhabited landscape,” McGraw said. “Rarely do you not hear some bird species when you crack open your window. I want students to really become knowledgeable about their local avifauna.”

To find the most immersive atmospheres for studying birds, a central component of his course involves multiple field trips to locations teeming with wildlife. These locales range from the nearby John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, just outside of Philadelphia, to the more remote Albany Pine Bush Preserve in New York.

At these parks, the students observe scores of birds in their natural states. The highlights of these expeditions may be more intense than anticipated.

“In Cape May, we all hunkered down into a bird blind and watched as biologists used live lures to ‘fish’ for raptors in the sky,” McGraw said. “We saw a merlin come flying in at 100 miles an hour, thinking it’s about to grab a starling and crash into a mist net to be captured and studied."

McGraw added that the fieldwork aspect of the course makes the curriculum more tangible for students.

“When you get in the field and get your hands on a bird, it can really be a life-changing experience,” he continued. “I’m hoping that these field experiences become the glue of the course, cementing the students’ connection to these animals.”

Aside from the fascinating field trips, the course takes on a fast-paced and rigorous workload, covering the evolutionary history, taxonomy, anatomy, physiology and ecology of birds.

“What makes birds so fascinating is their incredible diversity,” McGraw said. “There are more than 10,000 bird species that we know of, so there are lots of opportunities to talk about their different adaptations.”

While there are over 10,000 bird species to study, McGraw only expects his students to know how to identify 50 or so bird species by sight and song.

Bird identification may sound like mindless memorization, but some students actually enjoy the real-life applications of environmental science.

One such student is LPS student Caitlin Welsh, who is concentrating on environmental education.

“In teaching elementary kids about science and the environment, there are a lot of concepts that are hard to get across without having something tangible and accessible for them to connect with,” Welsh said. “If you can demystify birds and use them as a link, it can make those broad, abstract ideas a lot more concrete.”

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