Elon professor awarded Burroughs Wellcome Grant for wildlife studies project

The award will support "Wildlife Studies: Critical Carnivores," a year-round learning experience that exposes secondary school students to the world of wildlife science through a focus on carnivorous mammals.

Kimberly Pyne, assistant director of academic programs at Elon Academy and associate professor of English, was awarded a Student Science Enrichment Program grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for her project, “Wildlife Studies: Critical Carnivores.”

Wildlife Studies: Critical Carnivores is a year-round learning experience that exposes secondary school students to the world of wildlife science through a focus on carnivorous mammals–their behavior, ecology, and conservation challenges. A collaborative effort between Elon Academy (Elon University’s college access and success program for low-income Alamance county youth), the Conservators Center (a nonprofit wildlife education facility), and Elon’s Environmental Studies department, it intends to raise underrepresented secondary students’ interest in and connection to the natural sciences. The main educational goal is to nurture student enthusiasm for field science and to increase their knowledge of wildlife science and its underpinnings, scientific method and critical environmental thinking.

The project begins with a 4-week (30+ hour) summer class for 16 of the secondary students who participate in the Elon Academy college access program. Students experience hands-on ecological fieldwork, collecting local species data through camera traps, live small mammal traps, and footprint castings, as well as collecting behavioral data on endangered exotic species in captive environments. In addition to field experiences, the project invites students to wrestle with some of the dilemmas facing scientists studying predators during the Holocene extinction, such as the reintroduction of large carnivores into human-altered habitats (e.g., red wolves in NC), the impact and management of invasive species (e.g., Eastern coyotes), and the pressure of pets and feral domestics on wild populations and habitats (e.g., domestic cats). The project asks “Why are large, fierce animals increasingly rare? What can scientists do to understand and address this?” At the close of the summer program, students extend their learning with multiple field trips to related NC wildlife facilities and natural refuges, and share their learning with community members in public workshops.    

Wildlife conservation brings together complex ecological and biological questions, requires thoughtful application of scientific research methods, and is deeply embedded in the conflict between an ever-growing human population and the natural world. Blending hands-on scientific experience with careful examination of the larger ideologies that affect human-animal decisions, Critical Carnivores provides an in-depth opportunity to understand the complexity of conserving these natural resources in the 21st century.