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Outdoor Learning Center @ TTU- pgs

The Outdoor Learning Center at the Texas Tech University Center at Junction Brett Mosley, Texas Tech Junction Outdoor Learning Center Director

The Texas Tech University Center at Junction celebrated its 50th year of providing unique outdoor learning for students of all ages and backgrounds. On the banks of the South Llano River and with over 400 acres of Texas Hill Country ecosystems, the Center boasts yearround educational opportunities for students that can be found nowhere else in Texas. With summer courses for Texas Tech students, the Llano River Field Station providing research opportunities in natural resources, and the Outdoor Learning Center engaging K-12 students in STEM education, the Texas Tech Center is leading the way in providing world class natural resources research and environmental education.

A key program at the Texas Tech Center at Junction is the Outdoor Leaning Center. Since its inception since 2003, the Outdoor Learning Center has had a unifying goal of providing elementary, middle school, and high school students the opportunity to experience science, math, and engineering taught outdoors. There is no better way to engage a child’s interest in the sciences than for them to get their feet wet doing it. The education comes from the experience.

The exceptional opportunities to study ecology for these Outdoor Learning Center (OLC) students is found in the wealth of wildlife and ecosystems found in Junction. Its rivers, geology, land features, and creatures give young people an experience and interest in the environmental sciences that they can carry on throughout their lives. This exposure to nature and the sciences will have a proven positive effect on a child’s career, thoughts on conservation, and connection to the natural world. The students that come to Junction to attend the OLC experience courses that can only happen here. Highlighting just three of the OLC’s twenty courses below, we hope to showcase some of the exciting activities kids are engaged in at the OLC at the Texas Tech Center at Junction.

The confluence of the South and North Llano Rivers plays a large role in the environmental studies these young people undertake when visiting. With the South Llano bordering the campus, a diverse group of students get the unique opportunity to learn and enjoy a special feature of our hill country community. Unbelievably, this is sometimes the first occasion a student has had access and opportunity to set foot in the pristine waters many of us get to often enjoy. A principle focus of the K-12 Aquatic Biology course is the care

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and concern of Texas’ waterways. The South Llano River is home to a number of species of wildlife. The Guadalupe Bass, belted kingfisher, and an occasional beaver call the South Llano River home. But there exists a special population of organisms thriving on its bottom surface: macro-invertebrates. You may have caught a hellgrammite or crawfish to use as bait, but there are many more tiny species that call the South Llano River home, and they can tell us so much about the river. These macroinvertebrates, which spend most of their lives in the water, give us an indication about a river’s health, and we challenge these young scientists to collect them to study. Each species of macroinvertebrates has its own tolerance to pollutants. Mayflies, Stoneflies, and Caddisflies are all low pollution tolerant. Dragonfly and Damselfly nymphs are somewhat tolerant. Midges, Blackfly larva, and aquatic worms all are highly tolerant to pollutants. By capturing, identifying, and classifying these macroinvertebrates, these future biologists can infer the conditions of the South Llano River. Taught either on campus or by kayaking the river, this course brings to the forefront the diverse life found in rivers, our connection to its waters, and the needs to conserve it. As one recent 5th grade student exclaimed, “I never knew science could be fun!”

Speaking of the kingfisher that inhabits our river, the birds that live or visit Junction make for just an impactful topic for the students that come to Junction to investigate and explore. With the North American population of common birds, songbirds, and ground birds declining at a staggering rate, the chance to see certain migratory or rare species of bird makes for a special visit. Our spring and summer bird visitors, the purple martins, are at the core of our ornithological studies. Their beautiful colorations, daring flights as aerial insectivores, and special relationship with humans all intrigue and fascinate the young people that attend. Part of the course allows students the opportunity to identify the bird species in Junction as they hike across campus. Scissor-tailed flycatchers, belted kingfishers, various vireo species, vermillion flycatchers, american kestrels, golden-cheeked warblers, and even our bald eagles are all high on the students lists when going on bird watching hikes. While birds are certainly

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found around the school yard and neighborhood of these children, seeing the beautiful bird species in their natural hill country habitat brings enjoyment along with the science. Students recognize the importance of preserving a space for these creatures while having fun birdwatching.

The classes at the OLC don’t just happen during the daytime. For overnight groups, the OLC provides kids the chance to see something spectacular they rarely get to anymore. Stars! Cloaked by all the lights found in the city and lacking the opportunity to spend times outside after the sun sets, seeing the exposed stars for the first time really amazes the young students. “Wow!” “I didn’t know there were so many!” “That is cool!” These are common exclamations once the sun sets, and the telescopes come out. A common fixture in our past, star gazing is becoming less available to people. The chance to study our universe, our Milky Way galaxy, stories behind constellations, and the life cycle of stars mean so much more you can view them in person. No other course brings out the wonder and amazement than when the students are stargazing. Upcoming eclipses, meteor showers, the parade of planets, and the lunar cycles give us a new show each evening. While these are only a sampling of what is being taught to these elementary, middle school, and high school students, these examples surely show the unique environmental educational opportunities that can happen at the Texas Tech Center at Junction. The Edwards Plateau region, with its watersheds, geology, hydrology, flora, and fauna play an integral role in educating and leading these young people to be the good stewards we inspire them to be.

The Texas Tech Junction Outdoor Learning Center provides year-round exemplary educational and outreach programs to school districts, home-school group, informal educational affiliates, and anyone who loves to do science outside. Getting kids out of the virtual world and reconnecting them with nature leads to so many positive outcomes that it so important to be able to offer these exciting outdoor educational experiences.


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