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Grinnell's Prairie


Drive west on Interstate 80 to exit 173, head north for half a mile, and take the first gravel road on your right. After 1.8 miles of row-cropland, you’ll come across a sign with the College’s familiar red laurel leaf: Welcome to the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA).

Though CERA is just 9 miles from the town of Grinnell, the College’s sprawling field station feels worlds away from the bustle of campus. Just beyond the low-slung, LEED-certified Environmental Education Center, 365 acres of prairie, savanna, wetlands, and oak forest beckon. 

Grinnell College acquired CERA in 1968 and named it for the late Henry S. Conard, internationally recognized botanist and beloved Grinnell professor. In the 49 years since, students, faculty, and staff have worked to preserve, restore, and learn from its complex ecosystems. CERA is planning events and activities to celebrate its 50th anniversary during the 2018-2019 academic year. Please contact CERA Manager Elizabeth Hill if you are interested in taking part in the festivities.

 Birdwatchers, artists, historians, and ecologists alike value CERA for its beauty, vibrancy, and immersive learning opportunities. Through these photographs, we invite you to experience CERA over the calendar  year.

CERA plantlife in the summer

Grasshopper on yellow flower

Lightt snow on the ground in January

Winter plantlife

Snowy trail at CERA

CERA in the fall

White flowers blooming in the spring

Yellow flowers in the prairie

Fall colors on the trees at CERA

CERA in the fall

Plantlife at sunset in the fall

Grass burn in the spring

Blazing a Trail of Opportunities

As a high school student in Las Vegas, Jarren Santos ’17 never anticipated that he would attend college in rural Iowa. But once he arrived on campus for the Grinnell Science Project, a pre-orientation program for science students from underrepresented backgrounds, it didn’t take long for the Nevada native to feel right at home.

“On my second night of GSP, I went to the Conard Environmental Research Area with a bunch of my new classmates. As I was spending time with my peers, looking out at the stars, something just clicked. I knew that Grinnell was the right place for me.”

By the summer after his second year, Santos had declared a major in biology, joined a plethora of extracurricular activities, and completed two Mentored Advanced Projects (investigating the relationship between diet-induced obesity and food-reinforced motivation in rats) with Andrea Tracy ’99, associate professor of psychology.

While working on MAP research, Santos became frustrated with his limited statistical knowledge. “I wanted to be able to understand the analyses I was running, and I began to realize how powerful a role statistics play in so many fields, including the health professions,” he says.

Jarren Santos and other students on a fall break tour to New York City pose in front of the Wall Street bull. Determined, Santos enrolled in statistics courses and changed his major to general science-biology, in order to enroll in more statistics and computer science coursework. He also went on a fall break trek to New York City sponsored by the Donald and Winifred Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership. The trek featured visits to a variety of employers where Grinnell alumni work in data analysis, technology, and applications-based careers.

Santos was particularly inspired by Emily Zabor ’04 and Ann Eaton ’08, who gave a presentation on their work with big data in healthcare at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. From there, the opportunities began to pour in at a pace that Santos likens to a “rollercoaster.”

Shortly after the trek, Zabor put Santos in touch with Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s internship manager. Given his limited coursework in statistics, the manager recommended that Santos apply for the BEST (Biostatistics and Epidemiology Summer Training) Diversity Program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. In the meantime, he completed a spring MAP under the guidance of Shonda Kuiper, professor of mathematics and statistics.

Santos’s summer at BEST was a success. In addition to conducting a research project on perceived versus actual risk of colorectal cancer, he also completed two free classes at Columbia: Introduction to Biostatistics and SAS programming.

Jarren Santos holds his laptop with digital maps appearing behind himWhen Santos returned to Grinnell for his senior fall, his resume was thicker and his passion for biostatstics was stronger than ever. With help from Sarah Barks in the Center for Careers, Life, and Service and Shannon Hinsa-Leasure, associate professor of biology, he enrolled in the 4-1 Master of Public Health Cooperative Degree Program. Through this new undergrad-to-graduate program, qualifying Grinnell students may earn their MPH from the University of Iowa with just one year of additional study. Santos chose the quantitative methods track, and he will receive his degree in the summer of 2018.

As his time at Grinnell drew to a close, Santos reflected on his journey from the Grinnell Science Project to a master’s in public health: “Grinnell does a really good job of filling up this pool of opportunities that are within your reach. If you’re willing to put in the work, I don’t think there are any goals that Grinnell can’t help you achieve.”

Communicating Climate Change, Composing Hope

Connie MutelNoted ecologist and science writer Cornelia Mutel will visit Grinnell on April 25-26 to discuss the challenges of confronting climate change. Her campus visit will include a lecture, a presentation in the biology department’s weekly seminar series, class appearances and a nature walk at the College's Conard Environmental Research Area. The events are free and open to the public.

Mutel’s most recent book, A Sugar Creek Chronicle: Observing Climate Change from a Midwestern Woodland (2016, University of Iowa Press) is an account of Mutel's exploration of climate change's impact on a woodland near her home in east-central Iowa. Her previous books include A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008 and The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa.

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 25, Rosenfield Center, Room 101
Lecture: "Communicating Climate Change, Composing Hope."
"Climate change is alive and active in the Midwest and around the globe," Mutel says. "What is it already touching? What are its effects? How can we address the growing challenges?" In the lecture, Mutel will provide a summary of the basic character of climate change and its most recent expressions.
11 a.m.  Tuesday, Noyce Science Center, Room 2022
Panel discussion: "Communicating Science-based Problems to the Lay Public," part of the biology department seminar series
2 p.m. Tuesday, ARH, Room 102
Class Visit: Professor Emeritus Doug Caulkins' Sustainability of Social Responsibility of Organizations class.
2 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA)
Informal Nature Walk: led by CERA Manager Elizabeth Hill. 
CERA is in rural Kellogg, Iowa.
Driving directions: Take Interstate-80 west from Grinnell to Exit 173. Go north on Highway 224 and take the first gravel road on the right (S. 12th Ave. E). Follow it east about 1.5 miles to the main entrance of CERA. Watch for CERA's main entrance sign.

Mutel's most recent book, A Sugar Creek Chronicle: Observing Climate Change from a Midwestern Woodland is an account of Mutel's exploration of climate change's impact on a woodland near her home in east-central Iowa. Her previous books include A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008 and The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa.

Mutel's visit is sponsored by the Center for Prairie Studies.

Prairie Meanders at CERA

Prairie Meanders installation at Grinnell College's Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA) in rural Kellogg is an engaging hybrid art form that combines nature trail, gallery display, land art, and immersive performance. Visitors meander through maze-like pathways and viscerally experience global ecology on a local, human-sized scale.

Prairie Meanders opened to the public on Saturday, Sept. 10. The installation will remain open for tours by individuals and small groups, with instructions provided, until Nov. 1. All children must be accompanied by responsible adults.

Professors Baz Kershaw and Susan Haedicke of Warwick University (UK) created Prairie Meanders with help from students of Lesley Delmenico, associate professor of theatre and dance.   

An associate professor of theater and performance studies at University of Warwick, Haedicke focuses her recent work on performance and agriculture, particularly the performance of farmscapes.

Emeritus professor of theater and performance studies at University of Warwick, and creator of Earthrise Repair Shop, Kershaw has been the keynote speaker at many international conferences and a visiting researcher at leading universities on five continents.


Office of Community Enhancement and Engagement, Center for the Humanities, Center for Prairie Studies and CERA, Public Events Concert Series, concentration in environmental studies, and the theatre and dance department.

Grass Workshop

The Grass Workshop at Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA) will consist of intensive, hands-on learning guided by one of Iowa’s top botanists, Dr. Thomas Rosburg. Field-based identification blended with classroom lectures, guided examination of live and pressed plant specimens, and use of technical identification keys will help participants gain practical knowledge of grasses. Participants will learn the language of grasses, the distinguishing features of the grass family, its major taxonomic subdivisions, and many grass genera and species, as well as the habits and ecology of common and rare members of the Poaceae family.

The Grass Workshop will take place at the 365-acre Grinnell College Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA), near Kellogg, in Jasper County. Morning sessions will take place in the Environmental Education Center and focus on (1) learning and identifying characteristics on sample specimens and (2) using dichotomous keys. Half-day field sessions will involve identification practice in restored and reconstructed prairies at CERA and prairie remnants and old fields at the Reichelt Unit of Rock Creek State, located west of Grinnell and close to CERA.

Dr. Thomas Rosburg (aka “Draceae”), Professor of Ecology and Botany in the Biology and Environmental Science and Policy Departments at Drake University, teaches numerous courses in ecology, limnology, botany, biological research and statistics, natural history and nature photography and regularly incorporates field trips in his classes to enhance learning opportunities. He often teaches summer courses at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory located near Spirit Lake, Iowa, and leads identification workshops across the state. Dr. Rosburg has served as President of the Iowa Academy of Science and on the Board of Directors for The Nature Conservancy, as well as an adviser or member on many conservation and science-oriented committees. Dr. Rosburg lives on a small farm, where he and his wife practice self-sufficient living raising livestock, fruits and vegetables. He has three children and one grandchild, and Tom’s hobbies include camping, backpacking, climbing, running, nature photography, reading and watching the Packers.

See the Grass Workshop 2016 brochure (pdf) for more information and registration information. Contact Elizabeth Hill with questions.

Sponsored by:

Celebrate the Earth

Grinnell College will host a series of events throughout April and early May in celebration of Earth Month. The free, public events will be focused on local food, creativity, volunteering, and exploration.

The events will take place throughout the campus and city, with a focus toward "getting rooted in the community." Featured events include Fred Magdoff’s lecture “Capitalism and Agriculture” on April 11, the National Water Dance on April 16, and the Eco Fair on April 23.

Some events will take place off-campus at Arbor Lake Park and the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA), including a lake cleanup and woodland wildflower hike. Free transportation is provided from Grinnell's campus to these events. RSVP to Elizabeth Hill  for transportation.

Calendar of Events

Local Food

Monday, April 11

Fred Magdoff

4 p.m. Noyce 1022 (Roundtable)

7:30 p.m. Joe Rosenfield ‘25 Center, Room 101 (Public Talk)

Fred Magdoff, Professor Emeritus of Soils at the University of Vermont, will give a roundtable on “Soil and Soil Health” and a public talk on “Capitalism and Agriculture.”

Saturday, April 16

Spring Fest

Noon-4 p.m. Ecohouse

Join Ecohouse members for a celebration of spring, local foods, music, and community. Explore Ecohouse’s environmental projects and take part in seed planting. Enjoy live music from student performers, springtime crafting, and more!

Wednesday, April 20

Richard Oppenlander

7:15 p.m. ARH Auditorium, Room 302

Consultant and researcher Richard Oppenlander, author of Food Choice and Sustainability, will guide the audience through a fact-filled journey of the food choice-animal agriculture-environment connection, revealing why humanity is currently on a path of pseudo-sustainability.

Friday, April 29

Food For Thought May Day Celebration

5-8:30 p.m. Cleveland Beach

Join members of Grinnell College’s Food For Thought group to celebrate early May Day. Bring a dish to the potluck and enjoy face-painting, music, and a discussion about campus food activism. Come and find out what Food For Thought is doing to increase the amount of “real food“ on campus!


Saturday, April 16

National Water Dance

3 p.m. CERA

Join campus and community dancers and musicians in celebrating the importance of water in our lives.

Email Jan Graham to reserve transportation. Van leaves the Rosenfield Center drop-off zone at 2:15 p.m., and Mayflower Community at 2:25 p.m.. If driving on your own, meet at CERA’s Environmental Education Center at 2:50 p.m.

Monday, April 18

Site-Specific Studio Critique

1­–4 p.m. CERA

Join Professor Lee Emma Running and her Site Specific Studio class for the critique of their place-based art installations at CERA. Student art installations explore how we connect to the Iowa landscape.

Email Elizabeth Hill to reserve transportation

Wednesday, April 20

Ecohouse Movie Night

9 p.m. Bob’s Underground Café

Join Ecohouse members to watch The Secret Life of Plants, a 1979 documentary based on the book of the same name. The film features time-lapse photography of plants and fungi growing and an original score by musician Stevie Wonder.

Friday, April 22

20 Minutes @ 11: Culling the Herd

11 a.m. Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, Faulconer Gallery/Room 131

Explore our human relationship to white-tailed deer with Professor Lee Emma Running, who will present her recent project “Cure” in which she carves and gilds the bones of roadkill, and CERA Manager Elizabeth Hill, who will provide background on deer management in Iowa.


April 12 and 14

Undergraduate Research Symposium

11 a.m.-1 p.m. Rosenfield Center, various locations

Undergraduate research panel and poster presentations include many student talks on local and global environmental and food justice topics. Arrive at 11 a.m. to grab a free lunch and full presentation schedule.

Panel presentations in Rosenfield Center, Rooms 202, 203, 209, 225-227

Poster session in Rosenfield Center, Room 101

Tuesday, April 19

Fracture: Essays Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America

7:30 p.m. Rosenfield Center, Room 101

Join Taylor Brorby (ed.) and Iowa-based writers and thinkers Debra Marquart, Carolyn Raffensperger, and Frederick Kirschenmann for a book reading and question and answer session on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Saturday, April 23

The Power is Ours!, Spiritual Reflections on Earth Day

12:30 p.m. Grinnell United Church of Christ

Join UCC members in welcoming Grinnell College faculty Liz Queathem and David Campbell, together with Associate Chaplain and Rabbi Rob Cabelli, who explore spiritual connections to Earth Day and climate change.

Thursday, April 28

Ecofeminist Organizing Workshop

4-5:30 p.m. ARH 102

Learn about inclusive organizing with two extraordinary activists! Join Bakken Resistance Pipeline Coalition co-founders and Women Food and Agriculture Network board members Ahna Kruzic and Dr. Angie Carter for a workshop on ecofeminist activism and organizing.


Saturday, April 23

Eco Fair

11 a.m.–1 p.m. Rosenfield Center, 1st floor and outdoor patio

SEC and Off-the-Grid students will present posters and demonstrations on topics pertaining to sustainable and off-the-grid living, including the tiny home movement, water sanitation and heating, backcountry camping tips, permaculture, urban gardening, and composting toilets.

Sunday, April 24

Arbor Lake Cleanup

2 p.m. Arbor Lake Park, 123 Pearl Street

Join IOWATER club in removing waste and beautifying Arbor Lake Park. Be prepared to get dirty, please wear rain boots and old clothes.

Email IOWATER to register.

Meet at GORP room in Harris Center or at Arbor Lake Park.

Tuesday, April 26

Woodland Wildflower Hike

4:15-6:15 p.m. CERA

Join CERA Manager Elizabeth Hill on a 1.5 mile spring ephemeral wildflower hike at CERA.

Wear sturdy walking shoes. Hike starts 4:45 p.m. at CERA.

Van leaves from Rosenfield Center drop-off zone at 4:15 p.m. Email Elizabeth Hill to reserve transportation

Saturday, May 7

Tallgrass Audubon Bird Banding

8 a.m.-noon Bob and Connie VanErsvelde’s house

Join members of the Tallgrass Audubon Society to learn about bird banding and the natural history of migratory birds. Families welcome!

Van leaves from Rosenfield Center drop-off zone

Email Elizabeth Hill for transportation or address

Event Sponsors

Center for Prairie Studies, CERA, Environmental Studies, Faulconer Gallery, Peace and Conflict Studies, Food for Thought, Iowater, Student Environmental Committee, Ecohouse, Poweshiek County SWCD, Advancing Animal Compassion Together, Student Government Association.

Volunteer Opportunity at CERA

Savanna Restoration and Greenhouse Work Day​

Join Grinnellians and other volunteers on Saturday, February 20, 2016, for a volunteer work day at  Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA). 

The group will be working on two projects:

  • savanna restoration mop-up (making piles and salvaging firewood), and
  • transplanting prairie and savanna seedlings in the greenhouse.

Work gloves and light refreshments will be provided; please bring your own water bottle.

Wear clothes and boots appropriate for work outside in the snow unless you’d like to stay in the greenhouse. 


If you plan to drive out to CERA, please park by the Environmental Education Center and meet the group at the Maintenance Shed at 10 a.m.

Need a ride? Please contact Nick Koster to reserve one. Riders will meet at the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center drop-off area at 9:30 a.m. 

Nature - A Walking Play

Grinnell College will host three outdoor performances of “Nature — A Walking Play” about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau from Sept. 11-13 at the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA).

TigerLion Arts will present the mythic telling of Emerson and Thoreau’s mutual love affair with the natural world. Grounded in the story of their friendship, the production offers a perspective on their lives that is strikingly relevant, richly complex, and yet utterly simple. 

A professional ensemble of actors will take the audience on a journey through the natural environment as scenes unfold around them. Bagpipes, ancient flutes, drums and rich choral arrangements will be intricately woven into the experience. 

“Nature” is an extraordinary, family-friendly journey that co-mingles story, spirit, and nature, as a means to reconnect its audience with the natural world. This original work was collaboratively created with writer and actor Tyson Forbes, a direct descendant of Emerson. 

Two Grinnell College alumni have key roles in the production. John Catron ’02 plays Thoreau, and Sara Shives’97 serves as production manager.

For more information, including ticket and transportation information, see Nature — A Walking Play.

Studying Birds on the Prairie

Birds captivate us through color, song, and flight. Where have they been? Where are they going? Will they return?

A partnership between Grinnell College’s Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA) and experienced bird bander Robert Van Ersvelde will help answer these questions and allow students to experience birds up close.

“It has an important educational component,” says Elizabeth Hill, manager of CERA. “There’s also something very special about holding a bird in one’s hand.”

CERA to Become Part of National Bird Banding Project

Bird banding at CERA provides students a unique way to study birds and nature across disciplines, says Hill. Hill, along with her four summer restoration assistants, is banding birds this summer at the Van Ersvelde property. The assistants have also conducted ecological restoration in prairie and savanna, assisted with citizen science workshops, and monitored bird and snake populations at CERA. They help manage Grinnell's urban prairies, too.

“It’s like the coolest thing ever,” says Sara DeRosa, intern and biology major from Eau Claire, Wis. “Bob always reminds us how lucky we are to have such an experience by asking ‘How many people got to hold a [insert bird name] today?’”

Banding is especially valuable scientifically because it can hint at climate changes that occur long before humans notice, Van Ersvelde says.

“Birds are like humans. They use a lot of the same resources we use like water and land,” Van Ersvelde says. “They’re good environmental barometers.”

“It’s a red light if a bird population suddenly decreases,” he says.

Van Ersvelde holds state and federal permits to band birds, which consists of capturing birds and placing metal bands on them for scientific research. He is also assisting Hill with obtaining permits.

At his 76-acre farm in rural Grinnell, Van Ersvelde participates in Mapping Avian Productivity Survivorship (MAPS), a program of the Institute for Bird Populations that collects data from sites across the country.

Next year, CERA plans to become a MAPS site, which would make it the only Iowa college and one of fewer than 10 colleges and universities nationwide, according to the MAPS program.

Bird Banding

The roots of bird banding go back centuries. Many cultures have marveled at the long journeys birds make — some more than 25,000 miles.

Birds are captured in 10–12-feet tall mesh nets. Researchers write down details about the birds in data sheets and use pliers to secure the metal bands that are inscribed with nine-digit serial numbers and resemble tiny bracelets.

When researchers encounter the birds again elsewhere, the data from the bands tells them about the birds’ gender, lifespan, reproductive patterns, migratory patterns, diseases, and how fast and far they travel, among other things. Today, millions of birds are banded annually.

Grinnell, CERA, and Bird Banding

CERA’s 360 acres, which contain oak savanna and prairie, provide an excellent territory for birds. Native birds include the blue jay, catbird, cardinal, rose-breasted grosbeak, and yellow-billed cuckoo. Banding takes place every 10 days through August.

Van Ersvelde has long helped local youngsters and now Grinnell College students learn about birds and nature.

“As a college student, I wasn’t lucky enough to have this opportunity to participate with bands and work with birds,” he says. “I’m hoping it will give some of the students a basis in research. I’m hoping it can open up some doors for them.”