By Todd Martin
Special to the Daily Herald
As science teacher Jack Reed walks along the trails at Parrie Haynes Ranch State Park, ideas pop into his head and with them, images of students learning naturally.
The environmental science teacher at Ellison High School arranged to take his students to the state park south of Killeen a dozen times this past school year for service and science.
Students spent their time trimming limbs, clear trails and replanting vegetation for the ranch. Students also took part in a wide range of scientific observations including taking weather readings, star gazing, identifying flora and fauna and surveying river flow.
Walking about the spacious state park, Reed is like a child in a candy store, getting down on the ground with a Texas flower directory and handheld video camera to shoot video of blooms to add to his growing visual archive of the plant population in the natural area.
Eleven students walk a trail with Reed and park ranger Kate Love, who stops to point out specific plants and asks students to identify the species. They stop at a section of overgrown trail and students learn to cut away excess limbs to make the narrow trails safer for hiking and riding.
All the while, though, on these field trips that start about 9 a.m. and stretch to about 4 p.m., Reed turns over ideas in his head and the images flow through his science-leaning brain.
It started for him three years ago when he heard a seventh-grade science teacher in New Orleans conduct a presentation about his students rebuilding a cypress swamp along Lake Pontchartrain.
Reed, a retired U.S. Coast Guard oceanographer and college-level teacher, figured the same type of arrangement could get his students in Killeen working to revive Texas native prairie grass and a wide range of other projects.
The Ellison teacher met with his principal, David Dominguez, and with Parrie Haynes Ranch superintendent Adam Jarrett to arrange a work and school schedule for his classes.
Students from five classes spent about one class a week from last October through May to labor and learn in the grassy and wooded parkland along the Lampasas River.
"I'm ecstatic," Reed said. "We're doing it at a slow pace."
Getting feet wet
Methodically scientific in his approach, the teacher stopped every busload at the Parrie Haynes Ranch sign for a photograph. He likes the idea of documenting his students' visits and their work.
On the 12th and final field trip of the school year, 33 students from two of Reed's environmental science classes literally got their feet wet to collect fish from the slow-flowing Lampasas River.
Those who chose to do the heavy work used two seine nets to hoist minnows and the occasional sun perch, bass and crawfish from the water.
Students also measured the water depth and figured the volume of liquid coursing through the mossy river.
As the high school juniors and seniors became accustomed to removing minnows from the long handheld nets, Reed smiled at their vocal wonder.
"You can see who comes from the city," he said. "Now that they're getting wet. They're getting into it."
"More teachers should do this," said Ellison senior Jack Brewer. "We're learning by doing."
Kevin Chism, another Ellison senior, said he and his classmates cut out a grouping of cedar trees and planted native trees to map growth over time.
"It's marvelous," Chism said of the school trips to the parkland. "I like the beauty of it, seeing how it grows. We don't normally see this in the city limits."
He explained how the on-site visits would help him remember elements of how nature works, like how rainfall flushes fish from their weedy hiding places.
"We saw a whole lot of them," he said following a hard May rainfall.
This year's students served as trailblazers. Reed said he and Jarrett spent about a year talking through the possibilities of partnership and this past school term was a pilot period to test their theories.
Jarrett, the ranch superintendent, might be as excited as the science teacher about the emerging partnership and its potential to bring children and young adults to the public property.
"Jack initiated it, and it's in the early stages," Jarrett said. "We are building a partnership with KISD and they are using the facilities as intended."
Texas Parks and Wildlife is all about ushering citizens, especially the young, outdoors to discover the natural and cultural resources of the state. That task is not easy, Jarrett said.
Reed's efforts to bring students to Parrie Haynes Ranch fit the land's mission, the superintendent said. From the teacher's standpoint, the river-fed grasslands make for an oasis of learning.
Already through the partnership, Parrie Haynes Ranch is open and free of charge to any school group as long as a teacher schedules an official field trip.
One day, Reed said, students from all over the Killeen area could be working to replant sections of the wild land in native prairie grass.
He envisions students working to set up geological coordinates using global positioning satellites, seeding the ground and caring for the growing grass in a decades-long project.
There also are river ways to survey and test, astronomical star gazing to complete and there's a swimming pool Reed figures would make a great wave generator and test tank laboratory.
Here, Reed said, is where high school students should be learning science - on 2,700 acres of blackfoot daisies, cacti and wild onion, where endangered warblers and vireos make a home and a science teacher dreams and plans.