Course of Nature

Course of Nature

The class is quiet, focused. It’s the final exam, and all heads are down, concentrating – all eyes on the task at hand. Still, Melissa Hughes isn’t surprised when one student gets up to point out the pileated woodpecker in the window behind her.

“It’s been like this all semester,” says the biology professor, who taught her ornithology course, including three hours of lecture and three hours of lab every week, entirely at Dixie Plantation for the first time this semester. “We’ve watched the seasons change out here: the first arrival of the migrants, the growing diversity in the chorus of songs in the morning. It has been a completely different experience for the students, being here all the time as opposed to coming here for field trips.”

Thanks to the two new field research stations at Dixie Plantation, faculty and students can now take full advantage of the College of Charleston’s 930-acre property, located 17 miles south of campus on the Stono River.

Dixie Plantation, Field Research Station, College of CharlestonMade possible by a $1 million matching grant from the Spaulding-Paolozzi Foundation, the field research stations provide unprecedented access to the property, which was left to the College by the late ornithologist and bird painter John Henry Dick for teaching environmental appreciation, conservation and preservation. And that is exactly what Hughes’ ornithology class is doing.

“An awareness of the environment around us pervades every aspect of the course,” says Hughes, noting how immediate access to the subject changes the learning process – for her students and herself alike. “A student or I will notice a bird while I’m lecturing, and we can check it out – or if it’s something particularly interesting, we can drop whatever we’re doing to track it down. We started a bird census, establishing and walking transects through different habitats, but next semester, I think we’ll start with that at the very beginning of the course. Since this was the first semester I’ve taught out here, it was a bit of a learning experience for me in terms of what we could and couldn’t do, or how best to run the whole show.”

Dixie2There’s definitely a lot to be learned at Dixie – both inside the field research stations and out. The stations themselves are a lesson in environmental preservation and architectural design. Built according to the regulations of the International Living Building Challenge Recognition Program, the stations have net-zero energy consumption and extremely low potable water use. That enviable environmental footprint is thanks to features like the solar chimney and windows turned to the prevailing breeze for cooling, barn doors serving as retractable hurricane shutters for resilience, rainwater catchment for nonpotable fresh water, the geothermal HVAC for minimal environmental impact and integrated solar photovoltaic array for offsetting energy demands. In addition, the Dominion Foundation awarded $25,000 to the College to purchase water-quality monitoring equipment for combined field and lab training.

“We are deeply appreciative of this generous grant from the Dominion Foundation,” says Dean of the School of Sciences and Mathematics Mike Auerbach. “The equipment made possible through the corporate endowment will enable us to provide students of all ages with a richer understanding of Lowcountry ecosystems and how they impact us all.”

The field research stations don’t just serve as laboratories for biology, geology, ecology, environmental studies and archaeology research, however: They serve as entryways to the diverse flora and fauna found in Dixie’s marshlands, tidal flats, grassland savannas, wetlands and hardwood and longleaf pine forests.

Dixie3“The two stations sit in such different habitats,” says Hughes, who next semester will start alternating between the two stations so students can get to know both habitats equally. “I’m full of plans – really can’t wait to teach out here again!”

“It is important to note that the field stations are available to any faculty or class that wishes to take advantage of Dixie’s natural treasures and stunning vistas,” adds Auerbach. “Archaeologists, artists, educators: Virtually everyone can benefit from Dixie’s beauty and uniqueness.”

Hughes’ students certainly did: They “developed a sense of place, a feeling for the habitat, that’s just impossible if you’re just dropping in a few times over the semester,” she says. “That feeling for the habitat is a critical part of natural history education – it helps you recognize when things change, when things are different or out of place.

“So, you see more, you notice more. And I see a different side of my students,” continues Hughes, adding: “The students who develop the best ‘field eyes,’ who become the first to spot the new bird flitting through the trees, may or may not be the students who excel on exams.”

Besides, there’s so much more than final exams out there. Hughes knows this. She knows that there’s more to observe, more to learn, right outside the classroom walls. And, yes, she completely understands how distracting that can be.

After all – it doesn’t matter how quiet, how focused, the class is – it’s nearly impossible to concentrate on a final exam when a pileated woodpecker is right outside the window.