For now, Gene Eidson's classroom has a mud floor with deer tracks in it and a breeze carrying hawks and turkey buzzards aloft. But standing on the banks of a wastewater containment pond looking out across an ancient swamp, he envisions scores of children tromping into the Phinizy Swamp EcoPark and leaving heads full of science lessons learned by just looking around.
"I could teach a class right here," Dr. Eidson said, gesturing toward green-tinged water surrounding the base of gray cypress trees and sprays of dry, dead grass. Thin stalks of brown cattails sway as the wind moves the grass. A faint, white cloud of tiny seeds drifts out from the cattail and swirls above the grass before disappearing.
"We could talk about migration of seeds and how seeds are scattered," Dr. Eidson said. "See the cattail seeds? When a bird lands on those (cattail heads) it begins to break up and the seeds really scatter."
Those seeds could end up in nearby man-made "wetland cells" and next spring could repopulate the water with cattails, another example of how nature is constantly rearranging and changing, said Dr. Eidson, president of EcoSystems Institute, a nonprofit group running the EcoPark for Augusta.
The 1,040-acre park is southeast of Augusta's sewage-treatment plant off New Savannah Road and just west of the Savannah River. It holds the innovative wetlands sewage-treatment system, where semi-treated wastewater flows into a series of man-made wetland cells. There microbes and bacteria break down any harmful waste products, and the cleansed water then flows back into Butler Creek on its way to the river.
And that will be part of the lesson children learn, how using the natural process is actually saving the city millions, Dr. Eidson said. But it will be much more.
"Most of the classes will be on natural resource management and sustainable development," Dr. Eidson said. "We want people to realize man can interact with nature" without damaging it.
The biggest hurdle on the horizon is nearby Bush Field, where officials fear that birds attracted to the wetlands for food and shelter may collide with planes taking off and landing at the airport. There have been about 50 collisions since 1989, according to airport records.
But it isn't waterfowl the planes hit, but doves and sparrows, Dr. Eidson said. That pattern was evident before the park was built.
"It suggests that what we're seeing today is what we've seen for decades," Dr. Eidson said. The culprit may actually be the river. "Birds use it the way we use a highway" to guide them on migrations, Dr. Eidson said.
If those safety concerns can be addressed, the park could prove valuable to area students, said Joe Moore, coordinator for science programs at Richmond County schools. Richmond County students take environmental science as part of an earth-sciences course. Hands-on instruction would be a bonus, Mr. Moore said.
"One thing we try to do is teach kids to protect the environment and how to live in harmony with nature," Mr. Moore said. "You can learn about animals in the classroom, but to see them in their natural habitat, there's a lot of value in that."
The park has already had a few visits from panthers and bobcats. Alligators show up in the summer, and there are river otters.
"In the early morning is when the otters like to play out there," Dr. Eidson said, standing on a wood-and-concrete bridge, gesturing to the slow clear water of Butler Creek.
Deer and other animal tracks are everywhere on the ground and provide learning experiences even for the staff.
"Is that cat or coon?" asked Susan Evans, development director for EcoSystems as she crouched over a series of small four-pad indentations in the mud.
"Cat," was the answer.
The park would like to become an integrated part of the curriculum, a place where children would return several times a year, notice the change in seasons and follow up on research they did earlier, Dr. Eidson said. And though there are no formal agreements yet between the school system and the park, that combination appeals to school officials as well.
"We talked about having the park as an integrated part of our instruction program where classes would go out several times, not just one little field trip," Mr. Moore said.
When she taught an ecology class last year at A.R. Johnson Health, Science and Engineering High School, Helen Vella had to find a project for her kids to do, finally adopting a section of Rae's Creek.
"When I hear about something like that, I jump up and down and say, `I don't have to start from ground zero,"' Ms. Vella said. "Opportunities like that are not as common as you might think, or would like."
Students would participate in research like measuring the oxygen content in the water, collecting data that would become part of a national database on water quality.
The park also wants post-graduate affiliation with some of the Augusta-area universities. Some students are already doing doctoral work out there, Dr. Eidson said.
It will be months before the first classroom and the boardwalks that will carry the students over the mud are built. Opening is tentatively planned for April, and the park is seeking companies and groups to join in the effort.
As he drives out, Dr. Eidson passes by another old section of the swamp, where cypress stumps poke out of the green. In a stand in the trees is a group of snowy white egrets, balancing on their long legs, not moving.
They appear to be waiting.
If you would like to become a member, volunteer or intern at the Phinizy Swamp EcoPark, or work with the nonprofit EcoSystems Institute, call 828-2109.
Groups and companies can also donate and even sponsor exhibits or areas at the park. For more information, call development director Susan Evans at 828-2109.
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