When north Mississippi teachers plan lessons on the region’s plants, wildlife, ecosystems and water quality, they don’t have to rely on textbooks, classroom videos or even laboratory exercises to get their students excited about the subject.
They can take their classes straight to the source. Thanks to a growing partnership between the USDA National Sedimentation Laboratory and the University of Mississippi Field Station, elementary and high school students can learn firsthand about nature, pollution, geology and more.
At the Field Station, they can count fish scooped from the facility’s ponds, talk with scientists studying how fire ants communicate and check out the latest undersea vehicles used to study aquatic life and geology. And through the Sedimentation Lab’s Adopt-a-School program, students can learn directly from USDA researchers. “The Adopt-a-School program is a great opportunity for scientists to share their knowledge and interests with schoolchildren, and hopefully, to encourage them to become interested in the sciences,” said Matt Moore, research ecologist at the Sedimentation Lab.
The program started in 1999 with Como Elementary School and expanded to include Water Valley Elementary School in 2001. Scientists from the laboratory visited several north Mississippi schools to present lectures and donate spare equipment until 2003, when rising travel costs forced the staff to concentrate efforts on the Oxford and Lafayette County schools.
School groups from anywhere in Mississippi are welcome to visit the lab’s Oxford headquarters, where they can see a range of projects in engineering, biology, environmental chemistry and more, Moore said. Scientists at the lab study erosion, water quality, pesticide and nutrient runoff and their effects on the environment.
Likewise, field trips to the UM Field Station are encouraged because the facility’s mission includes outreach as well as research, said Ray Highsmith, executive director.
“We have noticed a definite upswing in the number and size of school groups visiting the Field Station and are very pleased with this increased interest in our programs and the opportunity to be of service to our schools,” Highsmith said.
The entire fifth-grade class at Oxford’s Della Davidson Elementary School recently spent a day at the Field Station, where the station’s staff and Sed Lab representatives set up nine different stations, each manned by a research scientist who explained their jobs in wetland ecology and the research they perform. It was “show and tell” with everything from fish to bugs to research equipment.
As part of the field trip, the students also toured the Field Station’s fire ant lab and new undersea vehicle lab.
In the fire ant lab, UM researchers are working to find new ways to control the invasive pests that do billions of dollars in damage to crops and property each year. The undersea vehicle work is a new direction at the Field Station involving development of high-tech approaches to observing and mapping important seafloor habitats.
“The Field Station experience is a great opportunity, especially for kids who don’t have a chance to get out into nature and see firsthand how the world interacts, from insects to plants to the forces of nature,” Moore said. “It helps because you are in the natural environment. The location is much better than being in the middle of a laboratory, and we use some of the wildlife out there to help explain concepts.”
For more information on visiting the Sedimentation Lab, contact Matt Moore at 662-232-2900. For more information on visiting the UM Field Station, call Ray Highsmith or Mark Baker at 662-915-5479.
The National Sedimentation Laboratory, a unit of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, conducts interdisciplinary research dealing with the processes of soil erosion; transport and deposition of sediment; movement of chemicals on upland areas and in streams; the impact of agricultural practices, in-stream structures and bank protection on these processes; water quality; and the ecological well-being of streams.
The UM Field Station offers opportunities for research in aquatic and terrestrial ecology. Located 11 miles northeast of the Oxford campus on Bay Springs Road, the 740-acre station lies in a scenic, three-mile-long, V-shaped valley surrounded by wooded hills and teeming with natural springs and seeps. To learn more about research and education programs at the Field Station, go to http://baysprings.olemiss.edu/.