MCLA Receives $250,000 to Advance Technology in Environmental Studies Department

The MCLA Environmental Studies Department was awarded $250,000 this summer through the Skills Capital Grant Program under the Baker-Polito Administration to benefit vocational and technical training programs. The College is one of 93 educational institutions and vocational schools to expand programs as part of the Career Technical Initiative (CTI). 

A junco with a radio tag banded during an environmental science class at MCLA. The tags that are detected by the MOTUS receiving stations look very similar to this. Photo provided by Dan Schustack.

MCLA will purchase ArcGIS and MyLab licensing, 42 monitors, 21 workstations, and peripherals to upgrade its Geographic Information System (GIS) lab. GIS is a computer system that analyzes and displays geographically referenced information. Environmental studies students regularly collect environmental and GIS data from
a variety of field locations throughout Berkshire County and beyond.

The environmental studies vans will also receive an upgrade with
the purchase of an electric passenger van to reduce the environmental impact of the field programs, said Dr. Elena Traister, professor of environmental science. Plans for a MOTUS tower are also in development, she added. It is a wildlife tracking system that can pick up signals from a tagged individual flying within kilometers of the tower and serves as a network of receiving stations managed by researchers throughout the world.

“This technology is allowing researchers to investigate wildlife migration patterns in order to design effective conservation strategies,” Traister said. “Professor Dan Shustack has involved MCLA students in his wildlife conservation research for many years. Our new MOTUS tower will offer more powerful tools for this work.”

“This is a very exciting opportunity for MCLA students to get involved with bird migration research,” said Dan Schustack, professor of environmental studies. “Not only will MCLA students benefit from participating in the MOTUS network, but we are developing collaborations with Williams College and other local organizations for additional research and educational opportunities.”

The global network of MOTUS stations has been growing over the last 10 years, Schustack explained. Installing one in the northern Berkshires will help close a gap in the network.

“Our station could potentially detect birds that were tagged in Vermont, Canada, or even South America as they migrate through the northern Berkshires, which would contribute to our global knowledge of bird migration,” he said. “With our students, we plan to tag birds from our region, meaning we will be able to obtain location information on those birds that are detected by Motus stations elsewhere in the network. As part of this process, our MCLA students will learn about bird tagging techniques, how Motus detections work, and learn to use spatial data of bird locations.”

Environmental studies students are being trained to be proficient with emerging technologies to better track migrating wildlife in order to prepare them for employers responding to pressing wildlife conservation needs.

“Proficiency with GIS is a requirement for many jobs and research opportunities in the environmental field as well as a variety of other careers,” Traister said. “A few examples include regional and environmental planning, conservation biology, renewable energy development, land conservation, and soil and wetland science. MCLA is unique in the proximity of our campus to a variety of unique natural habitats, and our environmental studies program takes advantage of our location in the many field courses and research opportunities we offer.”

Implementing GIS technology will allow students to analyze field data collected in the context of surrounding landscapes, which is required to complete a full semester of the GIS course that is offered in the department, Traister explained.

Students in several courses including Nature of New England and Ornithology will have the opportunity to participate in the construction of the MOTUS tower and access and use data collected from the station. Furthermore, students will be able to access detections of any birds students tag at other MOTUS stations across eastern North America.

Originally launched in 2015, the Skills Capital Grant Program has evolved into a crucial component of local workforce training efforts by implementing new technologies used by local employers. According to the state’s website, approximately 40,000 students across the Commonwealth have directly benefitted from this program.