Expanding Its Reach: UM’s Environmental Education Program serves all ages

By EMILY SPARACINO / Staff Writer 

MONTEVALLO – The Ebenezer Swamp Ecological Preserve sits off Shelby County 24 between Montevallo and Alabaster, a mere six miles from the University of Montevallo campus and three miles from Interstate 65.

But when you step onto the path leading from the entrance of the preserve into the cooler, tree-lined confines of what’s known as “The Swamp,” you might as well be in another world.

And, to some degree, you are.

As still and serene as it seems at the surface, this pocket of wetlands is teeming with activity—and learning opportunities for students and people of all ages.

“We have this beautiful resource available to us,” said Jecca Shumate, who was named director of UM’s Environmental Education Program this past August. “Magic is happening right here. It’s got a job, and it’s doing its job.”

The Ebenezer Swamp Ecological Preserve is one of several sites UM utilizes for programs for local school and community groups. (Reporter Photo/Keith McCoy)

The Swamp is home to a large variety of plant and animal species, from Tupelo gum trees to beavers to a rare species of coneflower.

These wetlands help to filter toxins from water, a vital function considering where the water ends up.

“This feeds into Shoal Creek, then Shoal Creek feeds into Little Cahaba, which feeds into Big Cahaba,” Shumate said, noting the Cahaba River is the main source of drinking water for about one-fifth of the state, mainly the Birmingham area.

Seventy-eight of the nearly 160 acres that comprise the Bolton-Orr Ecological Preserve at Ebenezer Wetlands were donated to UM in 1998, Shumate said.

In addition to the many natural components, the Swamp features abstract animal sculptures UM art students have created with recycled steel.

Shumate’s job as the Environmental Education Program director is to coordinate and facilitate programs at the Swamp, as well as the James Wylie Shepherd Observatory, UM Organic Community Garden, University Lake and UM’s main campus.

“On top of all the school programs, we’re also going to start offering workshops for the public, and maybe even professional development for teachers,” Shumate said. “Our first public workshop is in April, and it will be about mushroom foraging. Even if you don’t know anything, you can still come and learn the basics.”

Dr. Susan Caplow, assistant professor of environmental studies at UM, said one of the Environmental Education Program’s goals was to develop formal curriculum for elementary and secondary education groups wanting to visit the sites for field trips.

“We had, certainly, the ability to run programs there, but none of them were explicitly linked to the K-12 education standards,” Caplow said. “That was part of professionalizing the education component to make it more usable for teachers and for anybody who wanted to know what could (be done) there. We see ourselves as providing a unique service for this portion of Alabama.”

Multiple classes in UM’s Environmental Studies program visit the Swamp.

Programs for school groups are led by Shumate and UM student interpreters.

“All of our program staff, other than Jecca and myself, are university students, so they get to have a meaningful employment opportunity while in school as a student worker on campus,” Caplow said. Also, the kids I think respond really well to meeting university-aged people and learning about their lives. We hope that will get kids really excited about going to college.”

Shumate previously worked at the Cahaba Environmental Center as a seasonal environmental educator, program coordinator and then interim director before the center closed.

“I have worked closely with teachers in different grade levels, so I already know what they expect and also what the students are trying to learn,” she said. “Environmental education attracted me because it’s not in a classroom setting. The students get to really connect, but it plays a bigger part in their life.”

The Environmental Education Program will host a summer day camp for fourth- and fifth-grade students in June. Specific dates will be announced soon.

Starting in the fall, the program will operate day camps on days, such as Veterans Day, when local students are out of school.

The program is also looking to increase single-day experiences for community groups.

To see updates and announcements, visit the program’s Facebook page @UMontevalloEE or the webpage at Montevallo.edu/eeprograms.

Ebenezer Swamp Ecological Preserve is open to the public during daylight hours, seven days a week.