New wetland center creates outdoor classroom in Maryville

The City of Maryville, Maryville College faculty and students are educating the local community about wetland habitats through a new facility opened recently near Maryville Intermediate School.

The city held a ribbon-cutting ceremony April 30, officially opening the Pistol Creek Wetland Center, which is located on 12 acres near the intersection of Sandy Springs and Montvale Station roads. Prior to the ceremony, Maryville College students and biology majors Adam Bean and Kaycee Dortch joined students from Stacy Haralson’s fifth-grade Maryville Intermediate School science class at the outdoor classroom to discuss wetland ecology.

It was the students’ first trip to the center. For Bean and Dortch, it was one of several trips they’ve made to the location in the last year. Both have included it in their Senior Studies project.

One of the distinctive features of a Maryville College education, the Senior Study requirement calls for students to complete a two-semester research and writing project that is guided by a faculty supervisor.

Choosing non-traditional theses, the two Maryville College students created educational materials about the wetlands for local schools and the general public.

In 2007, the city of Maryville received an Environmental Protection Agency grant to enhance the wetlands site off Montvale Station Road. The city then contacted Dr. Ben Cash, associate professor of biology and chair of the college’s Natural Science Division, and Dr. Mark O’Gorman, associate professor of political science and coordinator of environmental studies, to help provide the research and educational components of the project.

Both agreed Maryville College students could contribute to and benefit from the project.

“How could we not jump at a chance to enhance a wetlands site and educate the public about the importance of wetlands at the same time?” Cash said of the project. “It has been an awesome experience.”

Beginning in 2007, professors and students conducted an inventory of existing wetland vegetation and wildlife, made recommendations for what native plants were suitable to that area and began water quality monitoring. Smaller on-going projects included experiments with salvaged wood and water preservation.

Last year, the city began constructing an open-air classroom, an outdoor laboratory, a pervious parking lot and an elevated 1,200-foot boardwalk, which guides guests around the floodplain and back to the spring.

“In my first meeting with Dr. Cash, he told me about the wetland project. After this, I was hooked,” said Bean, who is graduating with a degree in biology for teacher licensure. “This is a great opportunity to cover the subjects of biology and teaching that I have studied here at Maryville College.”

Bean produced signage that was placed along the boardwalk to help visitors understand the importance of the wetlands. He also developed a lesson plan with instructional, hands-on activities that schoolteachers can use to educate their classes while visiting the site. In addition, he has been responsible for contacting local schools and providing them with resources, such as his lesson plan, for the site.

“I am very pleased that my Senior Study will, hopefully, be used very readily by the schools in the surrounding area, instead of collecting dust on a shelf,” said Bean. “I am very fortunate that the timing of my study aligned with the construction of a site that will be used to educate the community about the importance of wetlands.”

Dortch also worked on educational signs and the development of pamphlets and children’s activities for families who use the boardwalk. The pamphlets explain the purpose of conserving the site and provide specific information about the area’s wildlife.

She said she was interested in focusing her Senior Study on an educational project that complemented her involvement with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples, where she interned last summer at the Discovery Center and Summer Day Camp.

“I’d love to work within environmental education, perhaps as a naturalist, and this project has better equipped me for a job within this field than a traditional thesis would have provided,” she added.

Environmental studies students Adam Holderbaum and Brad Russell, both juniors, have also joined the project. The two spent time with Stacy Haralson’s class, helping students create peat-pot flower arrangements that were on display at the center today. They’re currently working on a tri-fold brochure that will be available at the center.

According to Cash, all Maryville College students who have worked on the project have benefitted from the real-world experience. Specifically, he said they have been exposed to urban ecology and have learned the importance of small, natural areas in developed cities and the role of government in preserving the environment.

“Maryville College is proud to be part of this important partnership with the city of Maryville,” Cash said at the ceremony. “This is just one more collaborative effort between town and gown that, in the end, helps everyone in the city and the surrounding community.”

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