Sewanee Elementary School students examine a leaf on the nature trail behind their school.
Justin Thomas checks a purple-blue blossom against his wildflower bingo card. "That for sure is a blue phlox. Now all we need is a jack-in-the-pulpit." He takes off on a search for one. There's nothing like bingo to spur competitive botany.
Justin and 34 other Sewanee Elementary School fourth graders are scrambling down Shakerag Hollow's forested trail, through a north-facing cove on 10,000 acres owned by the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Their assignment: to identify wildflowers that proliferate on the nutrient-rich slopes. Each student uses a wildflower bingo card, emblazoned with color images, to identify nine spring blossoms.
The hike is part of Project FOREST (Focus on Regional Ecology in Southeast Tennessee), an outreach program of the university's biology department, the Landscape Analysis Lab and the Sewanee Herbarium. Supported by a grant from HHMI, Project FOREST plunges elementary school students into hands-on discovery of the Cumberland Plateau through outdoor classes, a nature camp, forest hikes, journal keeping and more.
University of the South undergraduates are enthusiastic participants in the outreach program, leading elementary school students on hikes, assisting at summer science-teacher workshops, and serving as counselors at Camp Cumberland, an afternoon nature camp, and Summer Science Camp, a day camp for junior high school students. "They may not be education majors, but they love kids and want to help them make the connections that are so important for conservation and stewardship of the environment," explains Rachel Petropoulos, research support specialist with the university's Landscape Analysis Lab.
The grant also enabled elementary school teachers Bonnie Wilkinson and Rachel Reavis to attend a three-day university workshop to learn to use geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning system (GPS) and computer research skills, and to begin designing and constructing a nature trail behind their school.
"This has been a teacher-driven adventure," says Project FOREST director Jonathan Evans. "We provide materials, ideas, assistance and training, and the teachers develop the classroom programs." Undergraduate biology students also participate in the science-teacher workshops.
Hiking Shakerag Hollow is a rite of spring in Sewanee, an Appalachian mountain town of 2,100 between Chattanooga and Nashville, yet fewer than half of the school children had ever visited the trail. "Some people may not be quite sure how or where to access the trail," says Mary Priestley, curator of the university herbarium, "or they may not know the window of opportunity for wildflower viewing."
Today the children are smelling the licorice-scented leaves of crushed sweet cicely, finding unfurling fern-frond fiddleheads, and identifying wild geranium and giant chickweed.
"So much of what we teach is out of a textbook," says Wilkinson. "It's much more meaningful to show the students indigenous wildflowers."
Priestley provides a subtle lesson in scientific observation. "What's different here?" she says, pausing at a ridge. "The white flowers?" one student asks. "That's right, tons of white trillium! And here—this one—you pick it, and it goes with you. That makes it...?" Before the students can answer, a parent-chaperone blurts out, "a Velcro plant!" Soon, just about everyone is wearing Velcro plants (a species of Galium), a profligate annual that disperses by clinging to whatever it contacts.
"It makes all the difference in the world for children to get out where they can see and smell and touch what it is you are trying to teach them," says Priestley. "There's no substitute for that."
The environmental lessons of Shakerag Hollow are not nearly as ephemeral as the wildflowers. As Petropoulos puts it: "We want them to have fun but also to come away with an awareness of this easily accessible natural resource. Perhaps when they drive by with their folks, they will remember this experience and say, 'Hey, that's Shakerag! Can we go for a walk there today?' That way more and more people in our community will come to appreciate their surroundings."