Club Promotes Spectrum of Environmental Science

Jan. 30, 2019

How do you apply science to the real world? This is a tough question, but the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences (SWES) Club is a shining example of how students are creating space to discuss environmental science stretching from observing desert ecology to learning sustainable agricultural practices and restoring native species. A small yet dynamic group, the club combines the excitement of gaining knowledge about environmental science with seeing it applied (in many ways) in the real world. 

“We are connecting with networks on campus and in the Tucson community that promote the spectrum of environmental science,” explains senior undergraduate and SWES Club vice president Mely Bohlman.

The year of 2018 has seen new levels of involvement by the SWES club, with field trips to surrounding desert ecosystems building a sense of community and hands-on experience with agricultural practices.

Experiencing biodiversity in your backyard

Thought to be one of the most condensed biodiverse regions in North American, the Sonoran Desert has more than 2,000 plant species, at least 60 species of mammals, more than 350 bird species and around 100 reptiles. To get SWES club students in the middle of this incredible ecosystem, the Department funded a field trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, just south of the western section of Saguaro National Park.

The 98-acre museum describes itself  as a “fusion experience,” focusing on combining an outdoor excursion with a museum experience, including trails, a zoo, several botanical gardens, an art gallery, natural history museum, aquarium

Along with snapping stunning desert vista photos, the SWES club walked interpreted paths through desert ecosystems and visited exhibitions showcasing grasslands and agave gardens. Interacting with nature is the best way to learn, and the SWES club walked away from the field trip with a better understanding of the complexity and biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert.

Practicing ancient agriculture in the modern day

Nearly 2,000 years ago, communities understand the importance of enhancing soil to help plants and crops grow. The SWES club is learning about this ancient practice and its application in the “biochar project.”

Biochar is a charcoal-like material that can improve soil quality because of its high carbon content. It is made from plants materials that is "cooked" without oxygen; for example burning plant material in a shallow pit covered with a thin layer of soil.

“The club wants to implement a project on campus that uses biochar harvested from a plot at the UA Community Garden and potted plants from the UA Plant Science Greenhouse to analyze the effect of biochar on water retention,” said Bohlman.

Initial tests performed Dr. Joey Blankinship and his lab show that biochar from buffelgrass, an abundant invasive grass species around Tucson, helps soil hold more water for plants. So, the club wants to investigate whether an obnoxious weed could be a soil enhancer that helps crops grow. Environmental science is a broad spectrum and sometimes hard to define. But SWES Club students started with their backyard, learning about local ecosystems and sustainable agricultural practices.