Dr. Christine Mutiti’s field botany summer course takes students from the urban sidewalks of the Oconee River Greenway, into the wooded areas where diverse plant life abounds. Mutiti, along with other biology and environmental sciences professors and students, are veering off the beaten path when it comes to experiential learning.
“This approach is more beneficial because it moves away from the traditional sense of learning in which students simply memorize facts that they quickly forget once they take their final exams,” Mutiti said.
As part of the field-based class, students are expected to use terminology learned in the classroom and apply it out on the Greenway. For the botany class, students work in groups to collect data on plant diversity in different parts of the area.
“I love hands-on field classes,” Taylor Upole, first year biology graduate student, said. “I think they are the best way to learn because you get a well-rounded experience instead of sitting in a classroom.”
Students like Upole aren’t the only ones who benefit from the Greenway. The biology department utilizes the facility in various research capacities including biology professor Dr. Bob Chandler’s research on raptors in the areas; associate professor of biology Dr. Kalina Manoylov’s research on the water quality of both the Oconee and Fishing Creek sites; and assistant professor of geology Dr. Samuel Mutiti’s field hydrogeology class uses the Greenway to study water movement.
“These, and other types of experiential opportunities are clear examples of community-based learning, where our students have the benefit of access to a wonderful ‘living classroom,’” Dr. Indiren Pillay, chair of the biology department, said. “Research data produced from these projects are leading to a better understanding of the ecology of the Greenway and the river system in the area.”
Mutiti also sees the direct benefit that student and faculty research has on the Milledgeville community.
“The benefit to the community is that projects undertaken by students and faculty provide information that can be used by the Oconee River Greenway Authority to properly plant and manage the resource,” Mutiti said. “And they have access to that information without having to pay a consultant to do it.”
Still, Mutiti says the initial goal is to create a learning environment where students thrive.
“The activities allow students to be actively engaged in the learning process, they have to think about what they are doing and why,” Mutiti said. “At the end of the course, they will have acquired new skills that they have actually utilized during the course and are more likely to be confident in applying those skills once they are on their own.”