At the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center in East Freeport, Florida, children are learning about nature by experiencing it firsthand.
Developed by Walton County conservationist M.C. Davis in 2009, the Center sits on the 50,000-acre Nokuse Plantation. Paul Arthur, president of Nokuse Education Inc. and director of E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center for the past five years, describes it as an environmental education center.
“Our ultimate goal is to teach future generations about the importance of conservation, preservation, and restoration of the ecosystem,” Arthur says. “We want every student to leave a little bit of a naturalist.”
Through two- or four-day programs, the Center provides children with a “complete learning experience” that aims to give them an in-depth understanding of the Florida Panhandle’s longleaf pine ecosystem, while also exposing them to the idea of conservation more broadly.
The Center’s lesson plan aligns with Florida state standards and is adjusted yearly. With over 700 pages of curriculum written by its staff, the Biophilia Center targets 4th and 7th grade students, as standardized testing occurs in 5th and 8th grade. The students come to the Center from schools in its five surrounding counties—Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Holmes, and Washington.
Each year the Center educates 5,200 students and averages more than 100 students every school day. It places a lot of emphasis on experiential learning; over 20 hands-on activities comprise 75 percent of the overall curriculum. These activities—led by team members with nicknames like Bluegill Jill, Tree Frog Tess, and Pine Tree Paul (Arthur)—include surveying with lasers to analyze topography and slope, water quality testing, and a gopher tortoise simulation class.
“My number one goal is to get students outside,” Arthur says. “We want to immerse them into the environment out here so they get excited about it.”
Their methods are working. In 2014, Columbus State University doctorate candidate Michael Dentzau conducted a two-year study on the effectiveness of the Biophilia Center. Dentzau had 4th grade students draw pictures of Florida’s environment before and after they went. According to Arthur, before visiting the Center, students had a warped view of the outdoors, drawing “snow-peaked mountains with giraffes, elephants, and gorillas.” Following their visits to the Center, the students’ drawings changed drastically.
“Not only did they draw it [accurately], they started labeling it: loblolly pine, gopher tortoise, eastern indigo, wire grass, turkey oak,” Arthur explains. “That’s what really blew us away.”
Dentzau also interviewed students five months after the visit. Much to the Center’s delight, they still remembered what they had learned.
“These kids were rattling off information to him that was amazing,” Arthur said. “It was amazing to hear that what we do is effective.”
The Center continues to serve students in northwestern Florida and promote the values of conservationism to the local community as a whole. Arthur notes that the Center hopes to provide a “complete learning experience” so students learn more than just facts.
“People don’t understand that when you mess with the food web it affects everything,” he says. “We want the students to understand how important it is that we maintain that balance for the biodiversity of the planet.”
Jaime Gordon is a sophomore at Duke University. She plans to declare a major in Cultural Anthropology and a minor in Political Science, while also working on a minor in Japanese and a certificate in Policy Journalism. Born in Jamaica, but raised in the United States, Jaime has always had an interest in how the human experience differs across cultural lines. She wants to travel as much as possible in between her semesters as a full-time student. Though her particular interests are in East Asia and Francophone Europe, Jaime hopes to visit all seven continents in pursuit of novel experiences, artsy photos, and the world’s best ice cream.