Forest and wildlife ecology students support Eau Claire County’s efforts to protect lake health

Engaging with community is at the heart of the research in Jessica Hua’s lab.

“We are an ecological lab that cares about pollutants in the environment. A lot of that is connected to the communities that really are impacted by the pollutants,” says Hua, associate professor of forest and wildlife ecology. “It’s something foundational to what I want my research and my teaching program to focus on.”

Hua reached out to UniverCity Alliance – a partnership program that connects Wisconsin local governments with university resources to address community-identified priorities – when she arrived on campus in fall of 2022 and connected with Eau Claire County.

Eau Claire County is facing challenges with algal blooms in Lake Altoona and partnered with UniverCity Alliance to seek solutions. After meeting with the county, Hua and students enrolled in Forest and Wildlife Ecology 599 determined their work would need to address the causes of the algal blooms and ways to communicate with the public about the issue.

“The meeting was a nice wake-up call for the students to realize that what they’re doing has real world implications,” says Hua. “They realized that you can work hard on a project, but if it is not what the county wants, it doesn’t matter how much time you put in. The realism of it is something they took away from this experience.”

To have a long-lasting effect on lake health, the student team and community partners decided to focus on elementary school students. They created educational resources for elementary schools and public libraries and designed a community science kit to support county efforts at measuring lake health.

Hua appreciated that the opportunity to work with Eau Claire County provided valuable learning experiences for the students.

“As an instructor, you can say, ‘You should take ownership of your work,’ or ‘It’s not about a grade. There are real implications of what you’re doing,’” she says. “But it’s not until the students interact with the community and experience the higher stakes of working with a partner that they realize the impact their work can have for a community.”

Future cohorts of Hua’s class will hopefully implement the materials that were created for Eau Claire County. This would include connecting with school educators to start using the lesson plan and sampling kits and identifying new sampling locations by communicating with private landowners.

“It is part of my core values as an educator that we authentically invest in the community,” says Hua. “We don’t want to parachute in and just leave – we hope for this to be an intentional and multi-year partnership that will lead to quality products that will genuinely contribute to solving challenges the community is facing.”

Hua will next teach Forest and Wildlife Ecology 599 in Spring 2025.