A Different Kind of Summer School

by Dan Nonte
Posted: July 12, 2013

On an overcast morning in July, Travis Moore ’14 squatted next to a stream swollen by the previous night’s rain. He reached out a five-foot broom handle with the bottom half of a plastic soda bottle attached to the end and scooped a dipperful of the water gurgling past.

“This is what happens when you watch too much MacGyver as a kid,” he said, raising his homemade sample collector and flashing a smile.

He and Assistant Professor of Biology Megan White sampled the water entering and leaving Greensboro’s seven-acre Bog Garden and at several points within the park. They measured and recorded temperature, oxygen levels, pH, suspended particles and electrical conductivity.

Travis and Megan were among six pairs of faculty and students who spent eight weeks this summer conducting research related to the Bog Garden at Benjamin Park. This inaugural Summer Research Scholars program included a cross section of academic disciplines – biology, community and justice studies, education, philosophy, and political science.

Sponsored by the Center for Principled Problem Solving and the Office of Undergraduate Research, the new program emphasizes the ethical dimensions of research. Each team engaged an ethical concern shaped by one or more of the College’s Core Values of community, diversity, equality, excellence, integrity, justice and stewardship.

Undergraduate research has been growing at Guilford, helping students become more confident, independent scholars. The College will hold its seventh annual undergraduate research symposium in February.

Fed by a tributary of North Buffalo Creek, the Bog Garden is a shady oasis in the middle of the city, a magnet for ducks and home to barred owls. Visitors stroll a half-mile wooden walkway that loops through the park, past a lake and man-made waterfall.

Dragonflys hovered and swooped over the water as Travis and Megan made their rounds. Turtles sunned themselves on logs in the lake.

Field work takes researchers out of the controlled environment of a lab. “There are so many variables when you’re working in nature,” Megan said.

All the teams met for reflection and discussion once a week and were joined at times by outside experts and guests. In addition to their research projects, each team completed a reflection document linking their experience with the experiences of other teams.

Joe Christian, a physician and the founder of the Bog Garden who died in 2011, envisioned the park as a place for environmental education. Jim Brooks, the park’s curator, has helped realize that dream by forming partnerships with Guilford and other local colleges.

“For me this represents a place to teach people how to interact with the natural world,” Jim said in an interview at the Bog Garden. “If we can do that, everyone will be well served.’”

A bronze statue of “Dr. Joe” stands at the entrance to the Bog Garden. For their research project, Tara Strefling ’16 and faculty member David Hildreth surveyed visitors as they passed that statue. “We’re here trying to figure out why kids like coming here and what did they learn by coming here,” Tara said.

David, a professor in the Education Studies Department, brought his own children, now teenagers, to the Bog Garden when they were younger. When he was growing up in Wadesboro, N.C., his mother would send him out to play and tell him not to come home until dinner.

Unstructured play outdoors has become less common in recent decades. David and Tara are concerned that children are becoming disconnected from nature, a phenomenon dubbed “nature deficit disorder” by the author Richard Louv. In his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods, Richard linked it to increasing rates of obesity, depression and attention deficit disorder.

Tara and David interviewed children, the children’s parents and other adults. Their adult interviewees frequently lit up when talking about spending time outdoors as children. They met people who have moved away from Greensboro, but who come to the Bog Garden when they return to visit the city.

It became clear that the Bog Garden has a powerful effect on visitors. Time in natural spaces benefit us all, but especially children, David said.

“They’re really kids when they’re outside,” he said. “There’s that sense of awe and wonder. We should unleash kids in the woods.”

Last Updated: January 14, 2014