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January 28, 2015

LIFE LESSONS Alabama's diverse environment seeks place in state curriculum

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Posted: Monday, June 30, 2014 6:44 am | Updated: 9:40 am, Mon Jun 30, 2014.

The Pygmy Sculpin is a rare fish that grows to be just 1.5 inches long and it is known to live in just one place on the planet — a short stretch of Choccolocco Creek.

This small species is one of many creatures that live only in Alabama, but a student here can graduate high school without having learned about them. Public schools are not required to teach students about the plants, animals, fish and rock formations found specifically in Alabama, but a draft document resting at the Department of Education in Montgomery is designed to make it easier for them to do so.

“This best-practices plan is going to put it right at their fingertips,” said Rene Morrison, an environmental educator who is the assistant director of Jacksonville State University’s Field Schools.

The plan, called Alabama Alive, has been delivered to the Alabama Department of Education, where it awaits approval by the state school board, said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, a spokeswoman for the department. If approved, it will serve as an aid to teachers who want to merge lessons about the environment into the subjects they already teach.

Valdes-Hubert said state Superintendent Tommy Bice has read the document and added that it is not clear when the board will review it.

Getting the word out

For now, some young Alabamians are exposed to environmental education through programs hosted by state-funded universities, such as the environmental program at JSU. Others learn about the natural world in their home state through for-cost summer day camps, which reach a limited number of children, said Heather Montgomery, a children’s book writer who works at McDowell Environmental Center at Camp McDowell, a camp and conference center in the Bankhead National Forest in Winston County operated by the Episcopal Church.

“Interestingly there is a lot of environmental education going on in the state, but it’s not recognized,” Montgomery said. “We’re really hoping that the state Department of Education will support the initiative.”

Teachers who are already interested in environmental education can attend summer workshops on the subject, where they can learn things to share with students. A group called Legacy, Partners in Education, is working with other entities, including JSU, to host a series of teacher workshops this summer.

At one of the most recent workshops, “Mountains to the Gulf,” Legacy, funded by the sale of special car tags, paid for two dozen educators and representatives from JSU, including Morrison, to go on a road trip aimed at teaching teachers more about the natural world around them.

“Alabama is a state that is easy to fall in love with,”  said Duncan, speaking to educators at the teachers workshop at Mount Cheaha earlier this month. “I am on a mission to spread the word about how awesome Alabama is in terms of its diversity.”

‘A biological frontier’

Alabama ranks first for freshwater fisheries, and fifth for the amount of overall diversity that exists within the states lines, according to the 2002 study titled States of the Union: Ranking America’s Biodiversity.

Alabama trails California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico on the list. Unlike those Western states, Alabama remains a “biological frontier,” said Scot Duncan, who wrote Southern Wonder, a recently published book about natural diversity in Alabama.

Ben Johnston teaches science to high school students in Madison County, and he said the textbooks he uses rarely, if ever, provide Alabama-specific examples, though many exist here. He went on the learning workshop to learn more.

“I really wanted to make the examples I give in biodiversity and geology specific to Alabama,” Johnston said. “Why not use our own state as an example?”

Duncan spoke to Johnston and the other teachers who were at the workshop when it stopped at Cheaha, explaining in an hours-long talk why Alabama has such a high level of diversity. Relying on an electronic presentation that highlights key points in its book, he said the state’s position on the globe, the range of rocks here, its climate and the amount of moisture provided by the Gulf of Mexico help provide good habitats for a range of wildlife.

Duncan pointed out that new species are still being discovered in the state, pointing to a bright blue species of crayfish that was recently found in Perry County and a species of spider that was recently discovered in the Birmingham area.

And he talked about the rare insect-eating plants that can be found in parts of south Alabama, labeling the state a hotspot for carnivorous plants.

‘How special it is’

Shelly Taliaferro, who teaches science courses to students at Auburn University in Montgomery, spoke up after Duncan’s talk. An Ohio native, she signed up for a recent eight-day traveling workshop to learn more about the state she’d just moved to.

“I found that they have very little background in science, especially in the natural world,” she said of her students. “They just don’t know how special it is.”

George Cline is a JSU professor and a Pennsylvania native who specializes in amphibians. He went on the week-long trip to assist in instructing the teachers.

“You see it every day and you don’t realize how exciting it really, really is,” Cline said of Alabama’s natural environment. “A lot of what we do is teaching people how exciting common things may be.”

Morrison, of the JSU Field Schools, has headed the Environmental Education Association of Alabama. She wrote in an email that it is important for Alabama’s residents to understand how unique and important the state’s lands and waters are.

“Environmental education helps us connect education, economic prosperity, sustainability, health and individual well being,” Morrison wrote. “Alabama’s future depends on a well-educated public who are sensible stewards of the environment that sustains not only the the current population but generations to come.”

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