From: Ruth Rendon, Houston Chronicle
Published November 22, 2004 12:00 AM

New Galveston, Texas, Center Offers a Glimpse of Gulf's Ecosystem

It's less than a mile long and takes no more than an hour to traverse, but within that span, visitors to the new Wetlands Center can experience some of the variety of Texas' Gulf coast.


The outdoor teaching center, across the street from the Texas A&M University at Galveston campus, had its grand opening Saturday to show off the new hands-on classroom.


"If you go to Big Bend National Park, you can walk from desert to alpine in six hours," said Judy Wern, executive director of the university's educational outreach office.


"At our place, you can start off at terrestrial, then see a freshwater pond, then a brackish water pond and then walk along sea grass beds and the bay -- all those different environments within nine-tenths of a mile and within one hour."


Efforts to build such a facility, which overlooks the Houston Ship Channel, Texas City and the Galveston causeway, began five years ago when a Galveston Independent School District administrator suggested the college campus as a field trip site.


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Now, organizers hope the Wetlands Center will entice not only students, but anybody who wants a snapshot of the Gulf Coast ecosystem. The facility was built using matching funds from the university as well as various state, federal and private grants.


From a new pavilion just past the Pelican Island bridge, visitors can venture along nature trails that weave through 16 acres.


The trails, created by professor Jim Webb, a wetlands specialist and plant ecologist, go under the bridge to include a view of the bay, shells, numerous wetlands, ponds and sea grass nurseries. Along the way, signs describe the area's plants and birds.


One of the goals of the new center is to give Galveston schoolchildren a hands-on lesson about their environment.


"We do a huge program for GISD," Wern said. "Each year we bring every sixth-grader from GISD and Galveston to the campus for a salt marsh trip."


Although Galveston is a major tourist attraction because of its beaches, Wern said, many area children know little about the bay or its inhabitants and marshes.


"It's a real struggle to get kids interested in science," Wern said.


"A lot of Galveston kids have never been to the beach. That's what inspired a lot of this program. ... None of them know what a marsh is."


By bringing between 750 and 900 Galveston students to the campus each year, Wern and her colleagues hope to change that. Some of the features of the Wetlands Center include microscopes and aquariums for students to store their aquatic finds.


To prepare for the visit, teachers attend a workshop on the topics that will be discussed.


Already, the campus field trips have made Wern somewhat of a celebrity. "I'll be in the grocery store and some kids come and tug on me. They say, 'Hi. Remember me?'


Wern, who also heads the college's popular summer Sea Camp, said she is most tickled when schoolchildren tell her, "I've never met a scientist before."


Another goal is to introduce the Wetlands Center to the greater Houston community, including bird-watchers interested in a new venue.


Each of the wetlands attracts different birds, said Webb, whose college students routinely conduct research and experiments in the area.


Some of the birds routinely seen in the area include the brown pelican, American white pelican, double crested cormorant, neotropic cormorant, mottled duck, roseate spoonbill, white ibis, whimbrel, willet, ruddy turnstone, killdeer, great-tailed grackle and various egrets, herons and gulls.


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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