Class assignment: prairie restoration

Depending on the day, you may find students in Sheena Abernathy’s biology class weeding in the College of the Mainland greenhouse or planting grasses on the Texas City Prairie preserve or discovering what they can do to help the environment at Armand Bayou Nature Center.

“We’re getting college credit for improving the community,” said student Anndrea Osborne of Dickinson, who plans to major in plant biology at the University of Texas after getting an associate degree in natural science from COM. “This is ideal for me. We get to come out and help with plants.”

A total of 25 hours, or 25 percent of the class, is service learning, which involves helping the community while exploring nature.

“We don't stay in a classroom. We go out and do more,” said student Leslie Foe, of Texas City. “I can put on a resume that we did improve this community.”

Working with master naturalist Jim Duron, the class is partnering with the Texas City Prairie Preserve.

“Over 99 percent of prairies in the (Gulf Coast) area have disappeared,” explained Duron. “At COM we’re growing little bluestem grass and prairie wildflowers. The students will divide them up and transplant them.”

The grasses and wildflowers will help restore the prairie as well as serve as habitat for the Atwater Prairie Chicken and other prairie-dwelling animals, whose numbers are shrinking.

“They’re vulnerable to coyotes and birds of prey. They need a food source and place to hide,” said Duron, adding that they can receive Atwater Prairie Chickens from the Houston Zoo once their habitat has been restored.

The class will also assist with prairie restoration at Galveston Island Sate Park and Armand Bayou Nature Center.

“They’ll plant or weed or do whatever the sites need that day plus hear an educational talk about preservation,” said Abernathy.

Students also head outside with fieldwork, from observing and numbering birds with COM binoculars or investigating life in COM’s Lake Eckert. 

“With service learning, students are doing the activity but they are also learning field methods,” said Abernathy. “We go outside and dip nets in the pond and look at water ecology based on the creatures we find.”

Students also learn how to collect insects and how to survey birds and plants, whether getting a total count or comparing numbers of species. 

Whether digging up seedlings or watering plants, students are discovering science is anything but dry.

“We’re playing with plants in class,” said Osborne. “It makes it worth getting up at 9 a.m.”

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