University of Vermont

Office of Community-University Partnerships & Service Learning

Shelly Rayback: A Class You Can Count On

Service-Learning Class Profiles Service-Learning Faculty

About this profile: This profile was one of many done through a partnership between Vermont Campus Compact and the University of Vermont’s “Strategic Writing for Public Communications” service-learning class taught by Joyce Hendley.  The goal of this partnership was to raise public awareness to community-based teaching, learning, and research and also to tell the stories of faculty from VCC member campuses who are engaged in this type of teaching and research. To read about more service-learning faculty from around the state, click here.

Shelly Rayback: A Class You Can Count On

Some of the best lessons are learned outside of the classroom.  This is the thinking behind University of Vermont Professor Shelly Rayback's 200 Level dendrochronology (the science of dating events and variations in the environment through the study of rings in trees) class. Dr. Rayback, an Assistant Professor of Geography, had her class partner with the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy, a national organization committed to the protection of nature and threatened habitats.  The students participated in field work at the LaPlatte River Nature Reserve in nearby Shelburne, Vermont.  Their field work involved using dendrochronological techniques to determine the age of the forest stand and to link the development of the forest with major flooding events on Lake Champlain.  The students also conducted historical research to discover who owned the land and how was the land used in the late 1800s and early 1900s before The Nature Conservancy acquired the property.  

This mixture of historical and scientific work was set up in progressive stages with the final product consisting of a scientific report, an oral presentation and a film.  The final report, submitted by the students to The Nature Conservancy, helped to construct a past and present identity of the forest.  

Professor Rayback's class gave the students an opportunity to practice different field and lab techniques within the framework of the class, as well as to apply concepts learned in class.  She explains, “I wanted the students to have an 'ah-ha!' moment in which the information that is learned in class comes to fruition in the real world.”  The field work coupled with the lab analysis enabled the students to practice their skills in a low stakes environment.  Partnering with the Nature Conservancy allowed the students to take on the responsibility of working with a community partner and submit their work to an organization that will use their research in future decision making capacities.   

Everyone involved in the partnership benefitted; the Nature Conservancy gained invaluable knowledge from the students' research, the students were able to the give back to the community that supported them through their university career, and Professor Rayback enjoyed her work so much she is currently applying for a grant for a larger dendrochronology-based research project incorporating service-learning where students will apply skills and knowledge learned in her dendrochronology class to a project in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy of Vermont and Maine.