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October 2009 cover image lesser prairie-chicken

Into the Wild

Educators seek to nurture a love for nature among college students.

By Sheryl Smith-Rogers

Nearly anyone who visits the Texas Nature Project near Mason gets introduced to a special live oak that’s heavily branched and thick with age.

“We call this the climbing tree,” says Dr. Sherra Theisen, hiking a jean-clad leg on a low-slung branch. “So many students who come here — and their parents, too — have never climbed a tree. So we make sure they do.”

The simple experience — once an integral part of childhood — can be life-changing.

students and instructor

“A person who climbs a tree for the first time may discover not only a sense of empowerment, but that the tree has true beauty and worth,” Theisen explains. “That’s a lesson not easily taught in a classroom.”

These days, it’s rarely taught at home, either. Even worse, Theisen and her colleague, Jan Schultz, worry that young, mostly urban Texans, who’ve grown up indoors with computers and other electronic gadgets, will be ill-prepared to inherit a natural world they’ve had little to do with.

“I’ve had bright college students tell me that they didn’t know trees were alive,” Theisen laments. “If they don’t know about the outdoors, how can they care for it?”

With the goal of turning that around, she and Schultz — who’ve each worked in academics 20-plus years — have put together the Texas Nature Project, an outdoor learning center (where they also live) spread across a 100-acre former cattle ranch. Now managed as a wildlife habitat, Northpoint Ranch encompasses year-round springs, seasonal creeks, pink granite outcroppings and a rich diversity of native flora and fauna.

students and instructor

For one full semester, Texas university students — housed in modest steel-framed dorms — live on the ranch and spend most of their time outside, studying under Thiesen, Schultz and other instructors. Curriculums — customized to dovetail with a student’s degree plan — encourage participants to ponder how their personal and professional choices affect the environment.

“We immerse students in hands-on experiences, like how to build in sustainable ways, grow vegetables in a garden and use alternate forms of energy,” Schultz explains. “We live with the students. For educators to have a real impact on lives, it requires more than a few hours a day.

“Most people think that going abroad for a semester is important,” she adds. “Why not a semester in nature? That’s even more important!”

As a summer intern this year, Murray Myers — a graduate of the University of St. Thomas in Houston — helped build the ranch’s green dorms.

“My time with Sherra and Jan better prepared me for graduate school,” says Myers, who plans to specialize in sustainable development. “I also learned a lot about Texas ecology.”

Like his two mentors in Mason, Myers sees a distinct disconnect with nature, especially among his peers.

“It’s a big problem in Houston, where I live,” he muses. “People have no respect for their neighborhood, which leads to apathy, and even littering. A program like the Texas Nature Project can make a difference, even if it’s just changing one student at a time.”

The Texas Nature Project also offers learning programs, photography classes, hiking and bird watching. For more information or to request a student application, call (832) 878-4141 or visit www.texasnatureproject.org.

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