The wonder of the natural world and the environmental challenges it faces have been captivating Southeast Texas teachers as Lamar University offers its 13th Teaching Environmental Science summer institute.

Week two of the field-based graduate science course began Monday with a trip to Shangri La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center in Orange. After a boat tour on Adams Bayou and a session of water quality testing, fifth-grade science teachers L’Tunya Bernard of Beaumont’s Fehl Elementary and Theresa Lacy of Port Arthur’s Travis Elementary both were eager to book field trips.

“My kids would love this,” Lacy said. “They’re inner city. They’ve never seen grasses like this.”

Bernard also hopes to take her students on a boat trip on the Neches River, an outing the teachers experienced on the first day of the two-week course.

“My students struggle with earth science, so I wanted to get more information to share with them about how people impact the environment and find out about good field trips,” Bernard said. “You can’t teach a child to protect something that they don’t know anything about.”

On Monday, teachers toured Shangri La – a 252-acre site with undeveloped wetlands, formal gardens and educational programs – and learned about its history and restoration. Other course activities have taken or will take teachers through refineries, an electric generation plant, a paper mill and a hazardous waste incineration unit in Southeast Texas. Teachers canoed in the Big Thicket and seined for fish in Trinity Bay. On Friday, they will close the class with an oil spill response simulation aboard airboats.

Patricia White, a sixth-grade science and religion teacher at St. Anne’s Catholic School in Beaumont, said the course has felt like a fun vacation for her, but will be a big help in the classroom.

“I have a better understanding of how our chemical plants work, a better understanding of our waterways and our responsibility to keep it clean,” White said. “I would like to take some of our top science kids and do some of these special things with them. So many of our kids have lost a sense of connection to nature.”

The institute is made possible through grants from industry, government and non-profit agencies. Grants provide about $14,000 in Lamar University scholarships to Southeast Texas educators and provide money for operating expenses. The course was developed and is taught by Jim Westgate, professor of earth and space sciences at Lamar University. Cindy Parish, a teacher at Ozen High School and adjunct instructor at Lamar, assists in teaching the class.

In addition to Bernard, Lacy and White, teachers participating in the institute are Lynn Callas, Pietzsch-MacArthur Elementary, Beaumont; Sally Woodall, Sutherland Head Start, Beaumont; Brooke Lejuene, Edison Middle School, Port Arthur; and Sheryl Muller of Beaumont, formerly of Tyrrell Elementary in Port Arthur. Participating through the Big Thicket National Preserve are Gary Howarth of New Orleans, John Melia of Spring Branch, and Susan Middlebrooks of Conroe, all of whom are part of the National Parks Service Teacher to Ranger to Teacher Program, and Bill Manhart, a biology graduate student at Lamar, and Matthew Smith, a Stephen F. Austin University undergraduate, both of whom are working at the Big Thicket this summer. Lamar undergraduate Marie Miles also is taking the course.