As repairs from last fall’s tornado continue, Temple University’s Ambler Campus created the Disturbance Ecology course this spring to turn the natural disaster into a learning experience for students as they finish fixing up the campus.
In the classroom, students learn about ecological disturbances—anything that removes living matter from an ecosystem—using the fall tornado as a case study, making frequent trips to Temple Ambler Field Station to study how the disaster damaged the Ambler campus and the campus’ tornado recovery process.
“I saw this forest and I thought, ‘Why don’t I teach a course in disturbance ecology? “, said Mariana Bonfim, a doctoral candidate in biology and research assistant at Temple Amber Field Station, who teaches the course. “This is a huge, big example of a disruption that has hit us, and it is a opportunity for students to connect with that.”
The tornado touched down on the Ambler campus on September 1, 2021 in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and caused millions of dollars in damage, including knocking out approximately 90% of the trees and shrubs on campus. In-person instruction was halted for two weeks as the campus began making repairs before resuming on September 15, 2021.
Chloe Gehret, a junior student in Ecology, Evolution and Biodiversity, enrolled in the Disturbance Ecology course because she didn’t expect a disturbance to occur in an eastern hardwood forest – the guy on Ambler’s campus — and it sparked her interest, she said.
“It’s such a great chance to just look at this disruption not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity to gain new experience in a different way, science in particular,” Gehret said.
Campus researchers studied many of the trees and shrubs lost during the tornado and are examining those that survived and new growth, said Amy Freestone, professor of biology and director of the Temple Ambler field station.
“We are very interested and excited from a research perspective to see what happens next and to understand the resilience of the ecosystem, to understand the survival of trees that are still standing, to look at what regenerates this spring” , Freestone said.
The campus plans to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to improve the wind resistance of the campus roof, said Vicki McGarvey, vice provost of University College and director of the Ambler campus.
After reopening last September with just four buildings operational, Ambler Campus is gradually repairing its facilities, with Bright Hall set to reopen in late November along with the campus library, moving from the old library building to the technology center. The Technology Center reopened at the start of the spring semester.
Students were excited to see Bright Hall reopen as it has a student lounge, pool table and video games.
“A lot of [students] are, I think, commuters, they don’t have a lot of accommodation there,” Gehret said. “So they probably go there and hang out with friends, play games, so I really think that has a lot of impact on the students, especially if it was somewhere they were going after classes or between classes to spend time with their friends.”
The space where the library originally stood became the Innovation Studio, which includes the campus field station and landscape, engineering and architecture classes, McGarvey said.
East Hall, West Hall and Cottage Hall suffered extreme roof damage and discussions are ongoing about what will happen to them, McGarvey said.
Although the tornado created a sense of loss on campus, it also provided an opportunity to understand how climate change is affecting the planet, Bonfim said.
“It was devastating for the campus, it was devastating for the community,” Freestone said. “But it is indeed an opportunity for us to learn more about these dynamics which are becoming more and more frequent and more and more severe with climate change.”