Seven acres in Jacksonville could become an outdoor learning laboratory
by Laura Johnson
Jul 09, 2012 | 3484 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jacksonville State University biologists and Calhoun County Schools science teachers this summer are mulling the idea of developing an outdoor lab on a seven-acre plot in Jacksonville.

Alexandria High School teacher Angela Morgan is developing a proposal to present to Calhoun County school board members. If the plan comes to fruition, students could be learning scientific principles in the field as soon as next spring, said George Cline, a JSU biology professor.

Recently Cline and a team of JSU students conducted a biological review of the site proposed for the learning lab. Owned by the Calhoun County Board of Education, the unused acreage adjoins the Calhoun County Career Technical Center.

Over a five-day period, Cline and other JSU biology professors and their students identified 175 species of insects and animals on the land. The students also identified about 75 different plant species in one small patch of land estimated to be about 50 feet long and 50 feet wide.

“What we have found is just a very broad array of organisms,” Cline said.

Their findings are being folded into Morgan’s proposal and will be used to support the idea that the grounds would serve as a sufficient lab for both college and high school students. Teachers hope the space will foster a collaborative learning environment where professors, teachers, college students and high school students learn together.

The idea evolved from a pitch made to biologists and Calhoun County Schools administrators by Wayne Smart, principal of the Calhoun County Career Technical Center.

“My goal is for it to grow where we can have a partnership with Jacksonville State University,” he said. “It would be a valuable resource for our high school students and our high school science teachers.”

As a long-time employee of the system, Smart said he was aware of the seven acres and its worth. Educators once attempted to develop the space as a garden, but that plan fell flat, he said.

Using the outdoor space as a lab would come at no additional cost since the county school system already owns the land. Students would be released under supervision to locate and identify species, test water quality or perform other scientific procedures, Smart said.

According to Cline, a JSU biologist would also be on hand to help the high school students. Further, he said, some of the high school students would be able to participate in high school-level research projects.

The partnership would benefit the county high schools, the university and the students, Cline said. The students would benefit because they’d get field experience, the county schools would benefit by accessing the resources, and the university would benefit by connecting with students.

“It’s about recruiting,” Cline said. “We’re trying to attract students to JSU, and that interaction is going to be an important interaction.”

In the end, Cline and other educators would like to see the facility used as more than either a recruiting station or an outdoor learning lab. He said they would like to see it become a springboard for a greater understanding of how to manage natural resources.

“We just have to make intelligent decisions,” Cline said. “If we can get students to become scientists, it doesn’t matter where they go, ultimately it’s going to be better for the general public.”

Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3545
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