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Middle school students learning by doing
Aneesah Dalal Dec. 2014 with Eastern Indigo Snake-2
Richmond Hill Middle School student Aneesah Dal holds an eastern indigo snake caught by a Fort Stewart biologist during a Field Students Program project in which students helped catch and tag the endangered species. - photo by Courtesy Photo

Students in the area are discovering new classrooms made from salt marshes, pine forests and fish ponds, rather than bricks and mortar.

Through the Fields Study Program led by Georgia’s 2015 Science Teacher of the Year, Bob Hodgdon, youngsters are learning about their environment by participating in producer biomass surveys, amphibian studies and water quality testing. Through this hands-on learning program, Hodgdon said students are gaining an appreciation for science, engineering and technology.

“The Field Studies Program was started in the fall of 2013,” said Hodgdon, explaining that he and science teachers Catherine Warren, Chris Brown and others contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Fort Stewart’s Fish and Wildlife Division.

“They all have outreach programs. Most of the time it involves them coming to do a talk or kids going on field trips. … This (program) is much better because the kids are involved, and the data we collect is actually used by them.”

Hodgdon, who teaches at Richmond Hill Middle School, said they needed financial assistance and equipment to start the program, which he said is not a formal class or course. Students volunteer for research activities after school and weekends, he said.

They’ve received $6,200 in grants and $11,000 in equipment used to check water for e coli, conduct “transect” studies to determine the diversity of plants in a specific area or gather data for “macro-invertebrate” studies in local salt marshes. They’re currently raising funds to buy “sensors and data loggers” through, he said.

Participants Patricia George and Kyle Fang always were interested in science but now more than ever. George said the program helps students who were not interested in science get into science and those who already liked science to love it. Although she’s only 13, George is considering a career as a biological physicist.

A short paper she wrote for her seventh-grade life-science class reveals her enthusiasm for the program.

“The first thing I did was get certified for the bacterial and chemical testing of water,” she said. “Now once a month, I go out to test the water at the J.F. Gregory Park canals. … I have gained new experiences (and) learned a lot.”

Fang, who recently took first place in a statewide writing contest, said the Field Studies Program and a scientific-engineering program he’s also involved in have led him to consider a career in engineering.

Hodgdon said the Field Studies Program has the support of the Bryan County Schools superintendent, administrators, faculty and parents. Those who’ve worked with the kids during various projects applaud the program and the students taking part in it.

The parents of one of the student participants, Jesse Freeze, assisted with 11 of the 12 projects they conducted in 2014. Marjorie Freeze said the program raises awareness of the “interconnectedness of our world.” She said waiting for water samples to incubate to see if the e coli levels are high “really hits home” when the samples are taken from the same river where her family enjoys fishing and canoeing.

Richmond Hill Middle School Principal Dr. William McGrath supports education programs that create life-long learners. He said the Field Studies Program not only does that, it also supports his school’s scientific, technology, engineering and math programs.

Warren, who teaches earth science, talked about assisting students with a “fish-shocking” project at Fort Stewart, and Brown, who teaches biology, talked about assisting with a project at Fort Stewart to catch and tag eastern indigo snakes.

Russ Webb, USFW biologist and manager of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, referred to the students participating in field studies as “top-notch,” saying he didn’t want to brag on them but couldn’t help it.

Fort Stewart’s Amanda Price, of the Environmental Research Group, said the students assisted Fish and Wildlife biologist in identifying and taking length and weight measurements of fish, and they were able to witness how their biologists capture, measure, weigh and tag threatened eastern indigo snakes.

As Hodgdon looks forward to another year of field-studies projects, he hopes the program eventually will have an impact on other school systems.

“We hope someday we can be a model to other school districts, but it really does take a higher level of commitment by the entire community in order to make something like this work,” Hodgdon said.

Richmond Hill Middle School is being considered for a volunteer award by Adopt-a-Stream and Sea World-Busch Gardens’ Environmental Middle School of the Year.

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