Student projects helping to create something from nothing

Kelsey on Fungus
Kelsey Krepps sitting on a giant fungus.

By KIMBERLY WEINBERG

Portraits editor

Big dreams can take big money.

Joe Colosimo ’94 and his fellow community leaders in Warren (Pa.) County didn’t let that stop them from dreaming big while coming up with a project to improve the economy of the region. 

“My background is economics and finance,” said Colosimo, who is an executive with Northwest Savings Bank’s Trust Division. “This region is typically the first into and the last out of a recession.”

Colosimo is a founding member of Pennsylvania Kinzua Pathways, a Warren-based organization with the goal of attracting more visitors to the area around the Allegheny Reservoir in the Allegheny National Forest. But instead of simply throwing marketing dollars at the problem, PKP seeks to build new attractions and educate people about the logging, oil, Native American and engineering history of the reservoir. 

Among the projects envisioned was 46 miles of mountain-biking trails in the area of Jakes Rocks in the Allegheny National Forest, where Kinzua Point juts out between Kinzua Bay and the main reservoir. Colosimo and friends thought the 3,000-acre rocky outcropping close to Route 59 Longhouse National Scenic Byway and campgrounds would make a great place for epic mountain biking trails.

They worked with the International Mountain Bicycling Association for a professional design that would rival the best mountain biking trails in America. “When these trail systems are done, there won’t be any like it,” Colosimo said. “The IMBA said this is the most beautiful trail system they’ve had an opportunity to build. It’s got huge opportunity to draw people.” 

Before the PKP could go any farther than the initial trail design, however, any kind of project of this nature on federal land would require an environmental assessment.

“We were looking at a price tag of $300,000 to $350,000 for an assessment,” Colosimo said. “Nobody’s going to give us donations to do a study.”

Steve Dowlan, a project manager with the U.S. Forest Service, had told Colosimo that while working in a national forest in Oregon, he had successfully used students from Oregon State University to do similar work.

Colosimo contacted his alma mater and got hooked up with Dr. Stephen Robar, who, among other positions, is the director of the environmental studies program, a hybrid major combining life sciences, geology, economics, ethics, politics and statistics. Little did Robar know how involved the university would become in various aspects of the Jakes Rocks project. 

Colosimo, Robar and a representative of the U.S. Forest Service came up with a way to do the required assessment for $56,000 while providing 17 Pitt-Bradford students with valuable field experience. After training in the spring of 2013 with Forest Service personnel, students spent the entire summer walking the 46 miles of trails three times inventorying flowers, fauna, stream crossings, ground conditions and endangered species within 50 feet of the roposed trail. 

Robar insisted that students be paid for 8 to 10 hours a day mid-May through August so that they would be able to stay and work the whole summer and not have to go home to make money for the coming academic year.

They received mileage, too, making it a sustainable summer job. Money for the stipend came from the businesses of the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry. Their housing was covered by the university’s policy that provides free summer housing to students taking classes. 

“When I first found out about it, I remember running home and calling my mom,” said Nicolette Fruehan of Brackney, Pa., who graduated with a biology degree in April and worked on the assessment last summer.

Kelsey Krepps, an environmental studies major from Titusville, Pa., was also excited about the opportunity.

“It was a really fun summer, and it was great to see the forest change,” she said. Fun, but tough. “There’s no trail there yet,” she noted, describing the struggle to get through hundreds of yards of mountain laurel.

While working, students were also required to take a field biology course on campus. Instantly using the information in the field while they were learning it in class made  remembering it a breeze, students said.

While in the field, they gathered plant samples and pressed them for the university’s herbarium, noted each stream crossing or any place they found water and measured the width and depth of it to classify the type of stream it was. They also measured how far an invasive species was from the water. At each significant site, a GPS marking was taken and entered into a database. Most of this graphic information systems work was done by one student, Greggory Mirth, who graduated with a degree in environmental sciences in 2013 and is now doing graduate work in environmental planning at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Mirth will return to the ANF this year as a full-time summer worker. 

            Nick Gier, who graduated this spring with a degree in environmental studies, appreciated not only the academic knowledge, but also the career guidance Dowlan and others provided. 

“I really didn’t know what I was going to do after graduation,” he said. Dowlan showed students the kinds of jobs that they would be eligible for with their current level of education and experience. Gier was able to parlay his internship in the forest into a full-time post-graduation job working in regulatory affairs for a sand and gravel company, Gernatt Asphalt Products Inc. in Collins, N.Y., near his hometown of North Collins, N.Y. 

A second group of seven students took on the less glamorous work during the fall semester of turning the fieldwork into a written report to be submitted to the U.S. Forest Service. One of the real-life aspects for students working at every stage has been presenting their findings to officials from the Forest Service, Pitt- Bradford and nearby communities.

With the assessment taken care of (students did not find anything to prohibit the narrow, low-impact trails from being built), Colosimo turned his attention to a website, and again approached Robar, who is also the associate dean of academics affairs on campus.

Robar connected Colosimo with Dr. Ken Wang, assistant professor of computer information systems and technology, who took on the project with his advanced web design students this spring. While most websites are created on an existing content management system, Wang required students to create their own, then create templates and a website. That’s a whole lotta work for one semester.

“It’s a real-world project for our students. There’s no example for them to follow. No pictures or text yet. It’s a challenge for them to develop things from scratch,” he said. Students had to decide on important usability functions such as what items to place on menus and where to put them, what “buttons” to place on the home page and where they would go. Good decision-making in this area is what makes a site user-friendly.

Wang upped the ante by not having the students work on the project together as an entire class, instead breaking them into four teams, each with the task of designing a website for the trails project.

“Another challenge is for them to work in a team. I like them to compete, and they can learn from each other,” Wang said, explaining that if one team finds out another team is incorporating an element, it often decides to incorporate that element, also, and will learn from the other group. 

Wang chose the “winning” site, but will also incorporate elements of the other sites and have students present the results to the PKP. 

Other students from different disciplines will be getting into the mix this coming fall by conducting oral histories of families that lived in the towns of Kinzua and Corydon that were flooded by the Kinzua Dam project in the 1960s.

The forest has also yielded other opportunities not related to the Jakes Rocks trails. Education and hospitality management students created teacher resource guides this spring for the Longhouse National Scenic Byway that amount to one-stop field-trip planning. Energy science and technology students will begin working on a project with graduate students from Princeton University this summer to measure methane escaping from plugged oil wells in the forest.

“There’s a whole gamut of education here,” Colosimo said. “Students get to learn about a real job and real-life work and what a great resource the university is for the region.” 

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