Fourteen Southeast Texas science teachers and future teachers learned about the local environment recently with field trips throughout the area in Lamar University’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences 16th annual Teaching Environmental Science summer institute. On Friday, the participants took a boat trip on the Trinity River where they learned about ecosystems in the Trinity Bay estuary.

The 10-day field institute, called “Teaching Environmental Sciences in the Three Rivers’ Watersheds and Wetlands,” is offered in conjunction with the Region 5 Science Collaborative and 24 local industries, state and federal agencies, and environmental non-governmental organizations. The institute is a co-enrollment graduate/undergraduate course for both in-service and pre-service (education major) teachers.

In order to understand the bay and the estuarine species that inhabit it, the teachers and Lamar University students put on hip waders and walked around in the coastal water. Using a large fish net (seine) and small hand nets, they looked at different species including juvenile shrimp, comb jellyfish and plants that can grow underwater. They also tested the water salinity and found that it was unusually high at 13 parts per thousand because of on-going drought conditions.

“By literally immersing teachers in the Trinity Bay estuary, we not only get their full attention on the subject, but we also get them to experience what it is like to be an estuarine organism surrounded in warm, brackish and turbid water,” said Jim Westgate, director of the institute and University Professor of Earth & Space Sciences at Lamar. “The teachers now have a deep connection with the bay organisms and the ability to teach to their students from their own experiences.”

Area teachers participating were Minta Bergeron, Jami Burns and Melinda Vail of Port Arthur; Katie Kornegay of West Orange-Stark; Summer Linscomb of West Brook; and Mary McLean of Lumberton. Also attending were Lamar University students Hilary Allen, Michael Black and Heather Burgess of Beaumont, Nick Brandes of Sealy, Samantha Chauvin of Vinton, La., Sandra Griffin of Vidor, Tania Stephens of Nederland and Johanna Todd of Liberty.

The summer institute introduces Southeast Texas’ EC-12 teachers (and students studying to be teachers) to environmental issues, problems and solutions through first-hand experiences, Westgate said. In the program, the teachers and LU students explore environmental topics such as industrial, agricultural and domestic wastes and emissions that affect the Neches, Trinity and Sabine River watersheds and air sheds.

“Good teachers know their subjects at a level higher than the level at which they attempt to convey the information,” Westgate said. “The fastest way to learn and retain information is to experience learning through multiple senses, sight, touch, sound, etc.”

The teacher participants receive full scholarships, as well as teaching materials they can use in their classrooms after the course. Teaching materials fulfill the No Child Left Behind professional development requirements for teachers, while the field activities prepare teachers and future teachers to instruct through self-directed, inquiry-method learning. Each institute’s cohort of in-service teachers instructs more than 2,000 students each fall. Since its inception, more than 150,000 Texas students have taken courses from teachers who have experienced the institute.

The Teaching Environmental Science Institute is jointly sponsored by the Texas Regional Science Collaborative, Entergy, ExxonMobil, MeadWestvaco, Sempra Energy, Chevron Phillips, Valero, Magnolia Garden Club, Waterborne Education Center, National Park Service’s Big Thicket National Preserve, Big Thicket Association, The Nature Conservancy, Village Creek State Park, Texas Energy Museum, Shangri La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center, Sea Grant, Texas Agrilife Extension Service, Texas General Land Office Oil Spill Prevention & Response, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas State University Texas Stream Team, Texas Parks & Wildlife Coastal Fisheries, Clean Air & Water Inc., DuPont Sabine River Works, Lower Neches Valley Authority, U.S. Coast Guard and Lamar University.

The Lamar University TES Institute has received international, national and statewide exposure through presentations at numerous venues. These have included conferences of the Australian Association for Environmental Education (2006), National Science Teachers Association (2003 & 2005), North American Association for Environmental Education (2002 & 2003), Science Teachers Association of Texas (2001-2004), Texas Academy of Science (2002, 2003, & 2005), and the Texas Environmental Educators Partnership (2002).