A peaceful natural area within an urban setting • Southwestern University

Travel about a mile east from the Southwestern campus entrance on Highway 29, and just off a one-lane dirt road is secluded terrain brimming with biodiversity. Known only to those curious enough to explore, the EcoLab is home to flora, fauna and fungi surrounded by a rapidly encroaching urban environment.

Jennie DeMarco, an ecosystem ecologist and assistant professor of biology, sees the EcoLab as a space where students can conduct research and enjoy a secluded natural area. She is also home to her project-based course of the same name. DeMarco, with the help of her students, wants to restore and protect the 19 acres of land so that the space is usable not only for Southwestern students and faculty, but also for the Georgetown community.

EcoLab land was historically the Blackland Prairie; however, in the last ten years, shrubs such as Ashe juniper and mesquite have taken over. Before DeMarco could bring students to the EcoLab, he needed to make it safer. In August 2021, he worked with facilities to clear the lot of trash and make it more livable. Then, in the fall of 2022, DeMarco resurrected the EcoLab class, which had previously been taught by another professor but had not been held since before the pandemic.

“I brought students here [to the EcoLab], we walked around, we watched,” DeMarco said. “We think about the needs of students and classes in terms of using this natural area and what are the barriers to using the space.”

After observing the EcoLab, DeMarco and his 13 students returned to the classroom to brainstorm potential projects and goals. The students were divided into four groups based on their different interests and goals for the respective projects. As part of the process, the groups wrote proposals and presented them to their classmates and the teacher. The groups decided to create an entrance to the EcoLab, build a trail system, develop a restoration plan to tame shrubs, and study biodiversity.

Each group had big plans for their projects. The trail group, called Take a Hike, wanted to create two trails within the EcoLab, aptly named Juniper for the shrub found throughout the area, and Paideia for Southwestern’s interdisciplinary approach to education. Juniper, the shorter of the two trails, runs the length of the EcoLab, while Paideia would lead from campus to the EcoLab. The group studying biodiversity wanted to highlight the plants, animals, insects, and fungi found within the area through a BioBlitz.

However, only a few goals could be met within the one-semester course, so the projects were simplified. The students who built trails were able to create Juniper, while Paideia will have to wait for a new group of students to spearhead. The biodiversity group decided to focus on plants and made a ArcGIS history map of terrestrial plants. This program shows the ecological importance of the plant, fun facts, location within the laboratory, flowering period, etc. Marley Kiser ’26, who was part of the biodiversity group, says that cataloging her research for other students and teachers to use was crucial.

“The biggest thing for us in our research was the general location of the plant, its ecological importance in general, specifically to the EcoLab,” Kiser said. “We collected several plants that we found eye-catching, and one of our group members spent his time drying, pressing, and labeling them for storage for future use.”

DeMarco said his students developed and wrote an extensive restoration plan for the EcoLab and he hopes that in future iterations of the course, new students will take on new projects and maintain completed ones. This could include smaller scale prescribed burns or introducing grazing to thin out some of the Ashe juniper found in the area. He would also like new students to investigate animal species, insects, and microbial species because little is known about them.

DeMarco sees the EcoLab as an island habitat set within an urban landscape. With Highway 29 just a few feet from the entrance, she wants to make sure the species that call the area home are protected. DeMarco encourages her students to think critically about how organisms will be affected by urbanization and how to stop the encroachment.

The future of EcoLab is in the hands of the Southwestern community. DeMarco envisions more than natural science courses using space. She would like to see the English and art departments use the area for writing or drawing about nature, or the physics department bring in telescopes for stargazing. Eventually, she would even like to host events to engage the local community.

“I think it’s incredibly important for communities, not just universities in a built-up environment, to have natural areas where they can go and interact with nature,” DeMarco said. “That way, they can get away from the hustle and bustle.”

DeMarco will continue to teach EcoLab during the fall semesters and his work to help protect the biodiversity found there. DeMarco not only teaches courses within the biology department, but also does research to understand how restoration activities can be nature-based climate solutions. He recently received a National Science Foundation grant of just over $500,000 for three years to study habitat restoration and its effects on climate change.