Since the Gateway Environmental Initiative formed nearly 10 years ago, we have envisioned the Gateway Nature Preserve site used as a resource for educators. In spring 2017, we had the marvelous opportunity to work with three colleges and universities to develop unique learning experiences with a variety of outcomes—in one case, a dramatic outcome!
Bioblitz with WSSU
In February, Louise Allen, a lecturer at Winston-Salem State University, brought her introductory biology classes to the Preserve in for a mini “bioblitz.” Breaking into groups that focused on plants, birds, and insects, the students used the taxonomic tools they had learned in the classroom to identify and classify their discoveries.
By listing characteristics of species they identified along Salem Creek Greenway—from flowering red maples to a small snake—students gained insights about the organisms’ habitat and life cycles. “It’s so important that students experience plants and animals in a real-life setting, not just the lab,” Allen said. “It helps them aggregate information and make connections that you can’t just get from reading something in a book.”
Salem College—Community Service and Learning
Students in Linda Birdsong’s Environmental Sciences class at Salem College needed a community service project as a requirement for the course. Birdsong and the Gateway Nature Preserve education committee came up with the idea of students developing an activity for the Preserve’s April 22 Earth Day Fair booth. Five students chose to do a leaf pack experiment, a method of collecting macroinvertebrates for study and assessing a creek’s environmental health (leafpacknetwork.org). Macroinvertebrates are insect larvae, worms and crustaceans that live at least part of their life cycle in water. Certain species are an indicator of water quality.
The students packed net bags with leaves, positioned them with stakes in Salem Creek, removed them the day before the fair, and helped our booth visitors find and identify the macroinvertebrates as they "unpacked" the leaf packs. The experience of designing an experiment, conducting research, and communicating their results to the public not only fulfilled a community service requirement, it supported their environmental sciences curriculum. For the Preserve, having students conduct a multi-phase project on site was invaluable and one we want to do again.
Art and Nature Are an Inspiring Mix at UNCSA
Inspired by her walks in the Gateway Nature Preserve, Professor LeeAnna Lawrence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts designed a course in which students would explore the deep role that a creek or a patch of woodland has in the formation of self, identity, community, and art. She named the course A Secret Landscape: Creek and Community, and her students—dancers, actors, filmmakers, musicians—immersed themselves in nature and environmental issues through readings from environmental writers such as Henry Thoreau and Wendell Berry, nature journaling, and weekly site visits.
For their final projects, the students created performative spaces in the Preserve. One group wove a series of nests along the Salem Creek Greenway, for example, and another composed a video about the dangers of pollutants in Salem Creek. Another group enacted a dramatic mime about developing empathy for the environment, accompanied by a harpist perched high atop the creek bank.
One student wrote, “It’s so easy to overlook what’s right in front of you. I mean, here’s this wonderful place literally at our doorstep, and now that I know it’s here I feel that I should go outside more and enjoy it.”
These three experiences demonstrate the infinite potential to extract learning experiences from a natural setting. We are grateful to the educators who encouraged their students to explore and grow at the Gateway Nature Preserve, and look forward to working with them—and other educators—again!