Texas Lake Is a Laboratory for Students

At Caddo Lake, pupils from nearby colleges can combine their majors with ecological research

COLLEGE students with majors as different as English, biology, and business have found a way to combine their academic interests with environmental studies. Using Caddo Lake as a living laboratory, students from nearby colleges in northeastern Texas and western Louisiana are investigating various environmental aspects of the lake to earn school credit, learn about environmental issues, and find ways to help preserve the area under the Caddo Lake Scholars Program.

Grammy-winning singer Don Henley, who grew up near Caddo Lake (which straddles the Texas-Louisiana border), founded the program last February. Students from three local colleges worked with faculty members, local residents, and members of government agencies to complete research papers or creative projects relating to the ecosystem of Caddo Lake, one of the largest natural lakes in the South. These projects were then entered in a competition in which students at each school could win up to $2,000. All the awards came out of Mr. Henley's pocket.

``I've always been an advocate of education, and these are respected institutions that exist near this lake,'' Henley says. ``The way to save any lake or ecosystem is by increasing knowledge about it. Through the program, students can receive school credit for studying the lake, and it will not only increase respect and knowledge about it, but it will help to actually save a lake that has been in danger for quite some time.''

With the cancellation this year of a proposed Army Corps of Engineers project at the lake, Caddo Lake's environment is not in imminent danger. But Henley and other participants in the Scholars Program want to be prepared to counter future threats.

East Texas Baptist University (ETBU), Stephen F. Austin State University (SFASU), and Wiley College, all located near Caddo Lake, were involved in the first cycle of the program last winter.

``Having students, faculty, and professional people all studying and brainstorming together is invaluable to the preservation of Caddo Lake and the learning process,'' says Sara Kneipp, intercollegiate coordinator for the Caddo Lake Scholars Program at ETBU. ``By using Caddo Lake as a natural laboratory, students get a unique type of field experience in environmental studies.''

James Martin, academic dean of Wiley College, which has a student body composed mostly of minorities, says, ``Minorities have not been that involved in fish and wildlife issues, so this is an effort to bring them into that world as well as giving them a chance to win awards.''

The program's first cycle received such high praise from faculty members and state officials that Henley has enlisted about a dozen colleges in Texas and Louisiana for the new semester.

A kickoff meeting held Sept. 11 at Caddo Lake State Park included students and faculty members from participating schools. Each school will receive $400 from Henley. Teams made up of students from different schools will also receive awards.

According to Henley's program director, Dwight Shellman, ``The program is still in the early stages, so this is just the tip of the iceberg. The idea behind the program is to let people be co-creators in the process. We want to make this a collaborative community effort and have a program that reinvents itself each cycle because there are so many things to learn [at the lake]. That's one of the reasons this is so unique.''

Graduate and undergraduate students from any major can participate in the program, depending on the school, and all students will be required to visit Caddo Lake for field experience in preparing their project.

For the next cycle, Ms. Kneipp is hoping to recruit music and history majors at ETBU. Jack McCullough, a biology professor at SFASU, says faculty members from the education and forestry departments have expressed interest. ``It's a wonderful program. The techniques that they learn, the methodology, it's very much a carry-over that can be used in other investigations no matter what a student's major is,'' Dr. McCullough says.

Chris Crowley, a graduate student in biology at SFASU, was one of the winners in the technical-research category for his paper on the ecological integrity of the lake. Several students in his class worked together to gather information for the report.

``We split the work. All the data were supplied to all of the students, but the interpretations and statistics were done on an individual basis. We were involved in looking at the environment at the lake as a whole and then comparing it with previous studies, so one of the first things we learned was how to reproduce a study,'' Mr. Crowley says.

James Henderson, a business major who won the technical-research award at ETBU, adds, ``We got some first-hand field experience by doing interviews and research. It was an opportunity to work with local residents and learn about a beautiful place at the same time.''

Awards also were presented for poetry and photographs. Monica Mimms, a communications major at ETBU, won in the creative-journalistic category for her pictures of Caddo Lake. ``I'm a photographer, and I thought it would be great to show Caddo Lake in pictures,'' she says. ``By doing the project, I got to learn just how precious every life is and how precious nature is, and that it's real fragile.''

Although students at ETBU and Wiley didn't receive academic credit for their work last semester, it appears that credit or grades will be given for the new cycle. ``Students can now get academic credit in an unparalleled manner,'' says Don Ellis, vice president for academic affairs at ETBU. ``They can take a special topic that they have an interest in, and we can guide and mentor them. It's a delivery system for an unusual and somewhat exotic course of study that may just ring their bell.''

Dean Martin at Wiley College says, ``There were no grades involved in this last semester, but it looks good for this one. The students went into this as a means and method of improving their skills in technical-paper writing and to learn more about environmental problems.''

While most of the participating schools are trying to find ways to grant credit or grades for students in the next cycle, SFASU did grant credit to students who worked on the project during the first cycle. ``We already had a course in place to investigate environmental conditions at Caddo Lake, so when I heard about the competition, I got the students involved in that as well,'' Professor McCullough explains.

All the winning papers will be included in ``The Caddo Lake Journal,'' scheduled for release this fall. The book, to be published by Henley, also will include transcripts from proceedings and briefings on the projects. It can be used by students and anyone interested in Caddo Lake as a reference book for future projects.

``Getting exposure to opportunities to be published is really meaningful in academic circles,'' ETBU's Dr. Ellis says. ``For young people getting a degree or going into graduate school, it's impressive to be in a publication.''

Texas State Rep. Paul Sadler, whose district includes Caddo Lake, has already given high praise to the project. ``I think the Caddo Lake Scholars Program is a tremendous program. Anything that expands the educational experience that gives you more hands-on experience is beneficial,'' he says. ``This is real-world stuff. Caddo Lake is a natural, beautiful asset to our state that has been in danger from various projects in the area. I think that it's something that each of the colleges should be involved in.''

Mr. Shellman says he and Henley will continue to work with schools and local officials to make this a permanent program at as many schools as possible.

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