City council to hear proposal to survey endangered bird species

The Austin City Council will vote Thursday on a proposal to hire environmental consultants to survey for two endangered bird species on land owned by the Austin Water Utility.

If approved, the city will pay up to approximately $100,000 to hire SWCA Environmental Consultants to check for the presence of golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos on the majority of the Water Quality Protection Lands.

Korzekwa Story #4 InfographicThe Water and Wastewater Commission unanimously recommended the proposal at its meeting March 13. Sarah Faust, the vice chair of the commission, said the surveys are performed every year during the nesting season in order to determine how many warblers are migrating to the preserve lands.

“The golden-cheeked warbler counts are an important part of the management of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve,” she said in an email interview, noting that the preserve makes up a large portion of the protection lands. “These counts help us determine whether the warbler population is growing and whether the habitat is serving its purpose.”

According to the Austin Water website, these lands feed underground water aquifers so the city purchased the areas, starting in the early ‘90s, to have an active role in protecting its drinking water. The lands span the recharge zone from just north of Kyle, Texas to Barton Springs, making up about 26,500 acres, says the website.

The Austin Water Utility works in conjunction with entities such as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to use the lands for public parks and recreational areas, while ensuring no damage is done to the city’s water supply, the website also says.

According to the Parks and Wildlife website, the golden-cheeked warbler has been on the federal endangered species list since 1990, and the black-capped vireo has been on the list since 1987.

The surveys will document any discovered territories of the birds, according to backup information from the Austin City Council, and the results will be used to plan restoration activities and avoid disruption of any endangered species.

According to the Parks and Wildlife website, golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos both call Texas their breeding ground and return here after their winter migration to South America. However, the website says the birds return to find their ideal habitats shrinking, which can negatively affect their population numbers.

The flaky bark of the Ashe juniper tree, also known as mountain cedar, is almost the sole source of material the warbler uses to build its nests, says the TPWD website, and urbanization decreases the number of the trees, which in turn harms the warbler.

As a member of the Texas Audubon Society, Austin biologist Tara Raabe said the importance of these birds is often overlooked, even though they are endangered.

“These birds are also a tourist attraction for birders that come to see these endangered species,” said Raabe, who holds a master’s degree in wildlife biology. “These birds are favored by birders, conservationists, biologists, and the general public because this rare species pretty much calls home right in our backyard.”

Raabe said that all across Texas numerous parks and reserves employ similar techniques to work toward conservation of these bird species, especially since the Hill Country, which contains Ashe juniper and similar trees, is one of the only breeding grounds left for the species.

A video on the Austin Water website describes how biologists survey and study the birds. Along with simply counting the number of birds, the teams catch the birds with nets and place different colored bands on their legs to identify them. This way they can track how many old and new birds migrate back to the specific habitats.

A request for info from the staffer on the project, Gage Loots, did not receive a response by press time.

The consulting firm would be paid through the Texas Multiple Award Schedule, which Faust said is a system the city uses to award contracts to qualified firms on a rotating basis. She said the city staff is responsible for determining the details of the contract and monitoring performance of the companies it hires.

“We don’t have enough staff to do the counts properly so we need to contract with biologists to assist,” Faust said.

In other business the commission also recommended that city council approve contracts with businesses such as American Facility Services, TIBH Industries, Green Constructor Group, and Blastco Texas for repair or maintenance services to Austin Water Utility property.

All agenda items, expect one that was postponed, were approved unanimously with commissioner J. Michael Ohueri absent. The council will also hear these items Thursday.

College welcomes its largest freshman class ever

The following clip is a news story published on the Texas Science website. It can also be found at this link:

This fall the College of Natural Sciences welcomes its largest ever freshman class, continuing an upward trend in student enrollment in the college.

As many as 2,152 freshmen started classes this week.

“I feel proud that so many students have sought out our college,” said Sacha Kopp, associate dean for undergraduate education. “Graduates in the sciences have promising career futures, and we have exceptional faculty and small community programs that help students succeed.”

Enrollment in the college has steadily increased over the past three years, and an approximate 15-percent increase in freshmen enrollment will make this year’s 2012 freshman class the college’s largest on record. The college has also become the largest at the university over the last several years. The total number of students in the college has increased from 9,811 in fall 2011 to an expected 10,365 for fall 2012.

“We are striving to make sure these many new students receive the numerous opportunities the college offers for experiential learning and joining small learning communities, and that we live up to the very high expectations that students rightly have of The University of Texas at Austin,” said Kopp.

Almost all of the college’s disciplines, from astronomy to statistics, will see an increase in number of freshmen, and enrollment figures show departments such as physics, astronomy and mathematics nearly doubling if not tripling. The major area with the highest enrollment is biology.

Kopp believes there are several reasons for the enrollment increases that stem from sources both inside and outside the college.

“There is a great deal of excitement about careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and these are being highlighted in various publications such as U.S. News & World Report or The Wall Street Journal,” Kopp said. “STEM has become a national conversation, and STEM careers lead to innovations in technology, health care and energy, to name a few.”

College of Natural Sciences programs are also gaining national attention. UTeach, the college’s program to prepare teachers, has been lauded by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. The Freshman Research Initiative, which engages more than one-third of college freshmen in research, was held up as a model in the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology 2012 report, “Engage to Excel.”

To accommodate more students, Kopp said the college has made a number of changes, such as adding seating capacity in entry level classes by adding additional sections or enlarging sections, providing additional teaching assistant support, and hiring more advisers.

“Hopefully we are keeping pace, but we are still watching carefully,” said Kopp. “Down the road, we have additional work to do in the upper division courses and laboratory courses but we are well aware of the effect this large class will have as it moves forward.”

Game development program is launched

The following clip is a press release published on the Texas Science website. It can also be found at this link:

AUSTIN, Texas-The College of Natural Sciences is teaming up with two other colleges at the university to launch undergraduate students into an interdisciplinary game development program.

“Students will learn to design and develop computer games both for entertainment and education,” said Dr. Bruce Porter, chair of the Department of Computer Science. “Students will also work in interdisciplinary teams that combine various required skills, such as design, artwork and computer programming.”

The program serves artists from the College of Fine Arts, level designers (those involved in creating the stages or missions of video games) from the Radio-Television-Film program in the College of Communication, and programmers from computer science.

During their sophomore and junior years, students will take game-design oriented classes within their individual disciplines. Then in the students’ senior year the three streams will come together into a capstone project class taught by industry leaders.

The program began this past fall, with the first capstone project class being planned for spring 2013. The program leaders plan to offer the capstone class every semester after it starts. Students with valuable skills from any discipline are encouraged to participate.

“The students will build actual computer games in the class, which will be designed and most likely taught by leading experts in the industry,” Porter added. “This experience should mimic the way games are designed and developed in industry, and the students should graduate with a portfolio of tangible games they have contributed to.”

With only 30 seats in each capstone project class, admission will be on a competitive application basis. Students interested in applying for the class can be registered in any department or program of study at the university.

“Because game design and development is such an interdisciplinary process, the program encompasses several colleges instead of being made into a specific major,” Porter said. “Games are developed by teams, each with specialties but each also versed in what other team members are doing. Our curriculum is intended to give students that background and experience.”

The program’s industrial advisers include leaders at Ricochet Labs, Zynga Games, and Bioware Austin.

“Austin has a vibrant and growing computer game industry,” said Porter, who also helped design and start the program. “For about ten years, representatives of the industry have been eager for the university to offer the program. We hope to significantly increase game development offerings across the colleges.”

Suggested classes for computer science students include: software engineering with C++, graphics, game technologies, artificial intelligence for games, and (multi-core) programming for performance.