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June 24, 2002

Oxford program teaching teachers on ecology

By Michael Terrazas

It doesn’t take too long to figure out that, of the couple dozen people wading through Bear Creek in southern Newton County on this fine Friday in June, at least a few are not the type to be wading through creeks, Bear or otherwise.

There are nervous giggles. There are sudden blurts of vertigo. There are even shrieks of feigned panic. But, more importantly, there is learning, and that is why these folks—17 participants, four instructors and one student assistant in the Oxford Institute for Environmental Education (OIEE)—are here in the first place.

Now in its 11th year, the OIEE is a 10-day program designed to help teachers bring the natural world into their classrooms by taking their classrooms out into the natural world. Participants go into the field and learn not only how to conduct their own ecological investigations, but also how to teach their students to do it, too.

“Studies have shown that inquiry-based teaching is one of the most effective ways to teach science,” said Steve Baker, associate professor of biology at Oxford and OIEE director. “A lot of people have these wildlife habitats or butterfly gardens [at their schools], but they don’t use them. They’re too nervous about taking their classes out.”

That nervousness, and the unfamiliarity with ecological fieldwork that invariably accompanies it, is exactly what OIEE is designed to overcome. Baker and Eloise Carter, professor of biology, launched the program in 1992 after Oxford was granted a nearby tract of property that became the Oxhouse Science Center: an ecological laboratory complete with its own small lake and 47 acres of forest and grassland. Oxford professors immediately began bringing their own students to Oxhouse, but Baker and Carter saw an even greater use.

“If we worked with teachers,” Baker said, “those teachers could then teach ecology investigation to their students. And each teacher probably will have hundreds of students, so we could really make a large impact in that way.”

That summer the two organized the first OIEE, and each summer since, a small group of teachers—mostly from the Atlanta area but some from farther away—has come to Oxhouse for 10 days to wade through streams, float on lakes, visit rock outcroppings and generally familiarize themselves with nature’s own laboratory.

The program is free, and participants even are awarded a $100 stipend through an Eisenhower Grant and additional funding from Georgia Power. Most participants live within driving distance of Oxford and are able to commute each day, but for those who must travel farther, Oxford Campus Life makes housing available during the program for a minimal fee.

For example, one of this summer’s student/teachers is John Taylor, who teaches at the Eckerd Youth Alternatives School in Blakely, Ga., just inside the state line above the Florida panhandle. Taylor is no neophyte to the outdoors, but he’s learned ways to further integrate learning from books with learning from nature.

“Classroom and field work go hand in hand,” said Taylor, who learned about the program through his principal. “I try to teach that way too, because hands-on work is more interesting.”

There are also participants like Tamie Clark, who teaches first grade at Jackson Elementary School in Newton County. “I love being outside, but teaching bugs and all that stuff? Ewww,” Clark said. “It’s fun, though, and the children love it, which is why I’m doing this even though it freaks me out.”

She’s not the only one it freaks out, as evidenced by the aforementioned shrieks when some of the participants step on or happen to pick up something creepy and crawly in Bear Creek. But even their “fear” is lighthearted, and it’s clear that each of the 17 participants is having a grand time tromping through the water, picking up bugs and fish, and getting their clothes dirty—generally, acting like kids again.

“It’s like music,” said Esther Brinson, an environmental teacher at Clarkston High School. “The language of the environment is universal.”

For more information about OIEE, contact Baker at 770-784-8446.