Mother Nature’s Smiling: Oxbow Meadows Expansion Sparks Environmental Learning

Fall 2011 Focus cover     From Focus magazine, Fall 2011 >>

By Greg Muraski

As an aspiring science teacher, Britany Moss “instantly fell in love” with Columbus State’s Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center.

She was struck by the extent to which the center enabled students to encounter and learn about wildlife up close. “If I had not already decided I wanted to be a science teacher, my initial experience definitely would have sealed the deal.”

That was about five years ago, when she was building lesson plans as a CSU science education major. Moss, now a science teacher at Harris County High School, looks forward to introducing her students to a renovated and expanded center.

“The new building and renovation add so much value,” she said after joining about 2,000 visitors for a July 30 grand opening celebrating Oxbow’s 8,000-square foot multipurpose facility, plus new specialty gardens,

“The expansion has revitalized our mission to educate visitors about conserving, protecting and restoring the environment,” said Lisa Randolph, recently appointed center director.

From Modest Beginnings

The center first opened in 1995 with a grand opening featuring Billy Turner, president of Columbus Water Works; Mary Sue Polleys, Muscogee County School District board president; and CSU President Frank Brown, among other dignitaries.

Turner, now retired, initiated the opening, as he wanted to complement the recently opened Columbus River-walk with a center to more tangibly educate the community about water conservation and the surrounding natural environment.Three key Oxbow players: Lisa Randolph, Becky Champion, George Stanton.

Turner targeted 1,600 acres known as Oxbow Meadows in south Columbus near the Chattahoochee River. Water Works had acquired the land, George Stanton, who had directed his students in several field study projects at the site.

“Billy, myself and Carole Rutland (then a Muscogee County School District science teacher) brainstormed some ideas, recalled Stanton, who continues to teach biology for CSU after retiring in 2009 as vice president for academic affairs. (Rutland, now executive director of Riverway South, an environmental nonprofit, later became the first director of CSU’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center.)

A plan materialized with a small building (now renovated and adjacent to the new facility) with office space and about 12 microscope stations. “We got the Board of Water Commissioners to fund the construction,” said Turner, now retired from Water Works and a recent CSU honorary degree recipient. “We were pleased with the little building, but then we had to find a way to operate the site.”

Initially, Stanton, as biology chair, worked at the center once or twice a week, plus his faculty colleagues and students volunteered to assist visiting science classes. Meanwhile, the park was open to the public for self-guided walks.Alicia Savage enjoys the 35-foot-high forest canopy walkway, which links multiple=

The following spring and summer, the mission took stride as the center served more than 2,000 visiting K-12 students who caught glimpses of herons, king fishers, frogs raccoons and more during interpretive trail walks. Specific field study, for example, engaged a group of Harris County High School students in examining a horde of turtles hoisted by net from one of the ponds.

In 1997, CSU faculty microbiologist Becky Champion became director and, according to Turner, “quickly made the center flourish.”

“We were looking to be a force and mesh with the other environmental organizations like Trees Columbus and Keep Columbus Beautiful, to name a few others,” she said.

Champion, who now works for the state Department of Natural Resources, said she is most proud of the center’s “relationship-building – with the likes of the (Muscogee County) school district, MeadWestvaco, Barnett-Woodruff Foundation, Water Works and community at large. Effective community outreach – it came through my entire staff, and this current staff appears similar,” she said.

‘Exciting’ New Era

Water Works Senior Vice President Cliff Arnett recently said the $2.3 million SPLOST-funded expansion “moves the partnership with CSU into an exciting, new era with greater focus on environmental education, entertaining nature displays and interactive programs for all ages.”

Randolph said such excitement has prompted an early flurry of class field trip bookings, starting in August. “Schools and teachers typically have booked class visits for late spring as sort of an end-of-school-year reward. Now, with the expanded features, teachers are approaching these field trips as a way to help shape their curriculums for the school year.”

Terri Long and her son, Carson, 6, enjoy one of the many new aquariums in Oxbow Meadows’ vastly expanded display area.Moss, a Pine Mountain native, said field trips to Oxbow give students perspective of “how our ‘human’ world intertwines with the natural world. We live in a house of cards, and allowing students to see endangered and threatened organisms in a controlled setting is a perfect way to emphasize the frailty of our biosphere.”

In addition to the class visits, Randolph and her staff are providing teachers, including Columbus State education majors, single day workshops that include a portfolio of lesson plans, from the state DNR and U.S. Forest Service, integrating math and environmental science. The material is in line with Georgia Performance Standards.

Moss (B.S.Ed 2006 and M.S.Ed.) said such outreach is invaluable. “Having such a place to take students that’s close to home and with programs aligned with our state curriculum is a dream come true for teachers,” she said. “Oxbow Meadows is not just environmentally valuable to the Columbus area, it is an education staple.”

In addition to teachers, young parents have approached Randolph with positive feedback and memories of visits as students during the center’s early years. “It’s exciting to realize the new center will affect the lives of a second generation of visitors to Oxbow Meadows.”

Champion agreed. “We’re seeing the results of the seeds sown for Oxbow Meadows to continue to effectively reach and indoctrinate a generation to be environmental conservationists.”

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Photo captions, from top:

Three key Oxbow players: Lisa Randolph, Becky Champion, George Stanton. (Photos by Roger Hart)

Alicia Savage enjoys the 35-foot-high forest canopy walkway, which links multiple platforms and a tower. It reopened with an additional support structure.

Terri Long and her son, Carson, 6, enjoy one of the many new aquariums in Oxbow Meadows’ vastly expanded display area.

Oxbow Meadows' main alligator.