Summer wildlife camps allow high school students to explore the great outdoors

In late June, while many Bobcats are pursuing off-campus ventures over the summer, a different group of students moves into the dorms. For two weeks Lees-McRae hosts ambitious, animal-minded high school students for the annual Wildlife Science Summer Programs.

The camp is designed for high school juniors and seniors who have taken some basic biology courses or have prior experience in wildlife biology through other camps and programs. Students can sign up for one or both weeks of the camp, where they participate in a fully immersive experiential learning experience led by skilled wildlife and biology faculty.

“We basically have Wildlife Biology faculty take their individual disciplines and give a session,” Assistant Dean of Natural and Behavioral Sciences Shinjini Goswami, who organized and led the camps, said. “For example, I did a session with them at the Elk Valley Field Preserve where I taught them a little bit about climate communities in Southern Appalachia. We went for a hike through the Elk Valley Field Preserve, and I taught them a little bit about invasive species that are quite popular in these types of ecosystems.”

In addition to Goswami’s lesson, the students completed a herpetology and mammalogy session with Program Coordinator for Wildlife Biology and herpetologist Michael Osbourn; learned bird watching skills and bird biodiversity facts in a session with Assistant Professor of Wildlife Biology and ornithologist Cody Porter; and completed a lesson on wildlife anatomy with Associate Professor and veterinarian Amber McNamara.

The students also received hands-on experience by working with the animal ambassadors at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Ambassadors are animals who live and are cared for at the rehabilitation center and cannot be released into the wild for various reasons. These wild animals provide an unmatched teaching opportunity for the high school students who learn to handle and care for them during the program.

One of the main goals of the science program is to introduce students to the vast biodiversity of wildlife in the Southern Appalachian region, both on the Lees-McRae campus and beyond. In order to explore the greater ecosystem and surrounding habitats not represented on the Lees-McRae campus, Goswami  and the other professors took the campers on a number of field trips to nearby locations.

The students visited Grandfather Mountain and took a tour of their nature center, toured the ancient Linville Caverns cave systems, learned about the rare and endangered plant species conservation project on Rich Mountain, explored the Western North Carolina Nature Center, and participated in a stream ecology session about electrofishing in the Elk Valley River.

“The students had a really fun time going through some of these communities and habitats,” Goswami said. “It gave them exposure to unique animals that live in these types of habitats. Since we have South Campus at Grandfather Home as well, Dr. Franz Rueckert did an astronomy session with the kids all the way up the hill. They got a chance to stargaze.”

At the end of the week the students had a chance to show off their new skills and knowledge with short presentations in Evans Auditorium. Many of the students used animal ambassadors to illustrate their knowledge of which types of animals are found in what kind of habitats, which types of animals sustain the most injuries, what types of animal injuries are seen most frequently at the rehabilitation center, and more.

“They presented some of their projects here with some of the data that was collected at the  rehabilitation center, and some of the data that was collected directly at the Elk Valley Field Preserve,” Goswami said. “These are really cool mini projects where students get a hands-on experience in getting to see some real-life ecosystem things that they otherwise wouldn't have been able to.”

Besides being an action-packed week full of fun and adventure, the Wildlife Science Summer Programs are an extremely enriching educational experience for young aspiring biologists, ecologists, and wildlife professionals. Additionally, Goswami said these camps are a great way to prepare students to study these fields at the collegiate level.

“A student who is getting in the hands-on experience of handling some of these injured animals, just imagine how much exposure they already have before they start school, so they already have a leg up,” Goswami said. “This is where they get that hands-on training, and this is where they get pumped up about the uniqueness of this program. I tried my best to make these camps as fun as possible, and as interesting as possible, and the students really loved it. When you are an enthusiastic, passionate, hard-working team, it really works out.”

By Maya JarrellJuly 07, 2022