As repairs continue from last fall’s tornado, 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 repairing the campus.
In the class, students learn about ecological disturbances – anything that removes living materials from an ecosystem – by using the fall tornado as a case study, taking frequent trips to the Temple Ambler Field Station to study how the disaster damaged the Ambler Campus and the campus’ tornado-recovery process.
“I saw that forest and I was like, ‘Why don’t I teach a disturbance ecology course?’” said Mariana Bonfim, a biology PhD candidate and research assistant at Temple Amber Field Station who is instructing the course. “This is one huge, big example of a disturbance that hit us, and that’s an opportunity for students to connect with that.”
The tornado touched down on the Ambler Campus on Sept. 1, 2021 in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and caused millions of dollars in damages, including eliminating about 90 percent of the campus’ trees and shrubs. In-person instruction was halted for two weeks as the campus began making repairs before resuming on Sept. 15, 2021.
Chloe Gehret, a junior ecology, evolution and biodiversity major, enrolled in the Disturbance Ecology course because she didn’t expect a disturbance to occur in an Eastern deciduous forest – the type on Ambler’s campus – and it sparked her interest, she said.
“It’s such a great chance to just look at this disturbance not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity to gain new experience in a different way, from science especially, ” Gehret said.
Researchers at the campus studied many of the trees and shrubs lost during the tornado and are examining the ones that survived and new growth, said Amy Freestone, a biology professor and the director of the Temple Ambler Field Station.
“We’re very interested and excited from a research perspective to see what happens next and understand the resilience of the ecosystem, to understand the survival of the 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 resiliency of the campus’ roofing, said Vicki McGarvey, vice provost for University College and the director of the Ambler campus.
After reopening last September with only four operational buildings, Ambler Campus is gradually repairing its facilities, with Bright Hall scheduled to reopen at the end of November along with the campus’ library, moving from the old Library Building into the Technology Center. The Technology Center reopened at the start of the spring semester.
Students were excited to see Bright Hall reopen because 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 housing there,” Gehret said. “So, they probably go there and hang out with friends, play some games, so I definitely think it impacts students a lot, especially if that was a place where they went after class or between classes to hang out with their friends.”
The space where the library was originally located has become 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 there is ongoing discussion about what will happen to them, McGarvey said.
Although the tornado created a sense of loss across the campus, it has also presented an opportunity to understand how climate change affects the planet, Bonfim said.
“It was devastating to the campus, it was devastating to the community,” Freestone said. “But it is indeed an opportunity for us to learn about these dynamics that are becoming more and more frequent and more severe with climate change.”