The development of RHERI consists of a multi-year, eight-phase plan to restore the wetlands on campus, create K-12 curricula that aligns with Montgomery Public Schools standards of learning, rally various constituencies to support the initiative, and much more.
Project Phases for RHERI Development
AUM has approved the hiring of a director and set aside the land that would encompass the RHERI. In addition we are actively working to build our Board of Directors, a mixture of community and campus leaders. The Board will work to guide the institute in education programming, community outreach, and research.
AUM owns approximately 250 acres of forest containing a network of nature trails that will serve as the core for the RHERI. The area includes pathways and trails that we hope to enhance with educational signage to educate visitors about the history, land use, and changing biodiversity of the area.
The RHERI will have a rich online presence that includes information about local rural history and the ecology and natural history of the Montgomery Area. We envision a website where we share trail maps, photographs, information about field trips, course offerings, lesson plans that teachers can access for free, and links to citizen science projects that can be accessed by the community.
We are proposing constructing an educational facility for the RHERI with the help of donor foundations. Because so much of the vision of the RHERI includes integrating disciplines, groups, and ideas we want our home to be integrated into the environment and AUM community. Setting an example for what educational spaces can look like and achieve, we envision an environmentally responsibly designed building that embodies shared space:
The internal space will accommodate 40 students comfortably and also house an office for our director. The center teaching and meeting area will feature universal design surrounded by adjustable work benches allowing for processing of field material and laboratory work for all learners as well as traditional lectures. One wall of the building will open to a covered outdoor classroom with seating and space for 40 people, outfitted with benches and large sinks for processing field material. The outdoor classroom will flow into the research plaza, a park-like area with benches and garden pots demonstrating the different ecosystems found in and around Montgomery.
The Demonstration Gardens would include:
Because all spaces will be designed with energy, water, material conservation, and accessibility in mind, the building will serve as an urban ecological research site and demonstration object highlighting universal and sustainable design. In addition to the opening wall and the two walls set aside for work benches, the fourth wall will have a display case for historically relevant artifacts and book shelves for a lending library.
This classroom will be a multi-disciplinary space intentionally designed for ecology, anthropology, archeology and historical education and research. Researchers and educators will be able to perform public outreach while exploring our local history and ecology. Additionally, K-12 educators will have a space where they can conduct classes and activities related to Native American, Colonial and African American history–both local and in a larger context.
It is also important to note that the forest houses the remnants of two sharecropper houses. Faculty in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work already use these sites for educational activities, and their offerings will be enhanced by the new shared learning spaces.
AUM’s Colleges of Sciences, Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and Education are creating lesson plans and programming for local schools and community groups paired with the state content standards in history, environmental science, and biology. This programming will equalize opportunities for K-12 students across Montgomery, providing onsite learner opportunities in ecology and history at no cost for local schools. We anticipate offering day-long field trip opportunities, Science and History Saturdays, and opportunities to engage students in authentic field research. In addition, we can provide teacher training to maximize use and effectiveness of our resources.
The RHERI will provide novel opportunities for class and lab experiences, experiential learning, and research for three colleges (Sciences, Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and Education). We identified at least 8 courses that can use the RHERI as a centerpiece for learning. Experiential learning opportunities also exist for all three colleges including undergraduate research experiences, student teaching, and hands-on archeology. Five faculty members have already identified research opportunities.
Four student organizations will have ties to the RHERI: Warhawk Audubon Student Conservation Association, Student Advocates for a Greener Environment, Tri-Beta Biology Honor Society, and the student chapter of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Additionally, we have begun the planning of a new Rights and Justice Honor Society that will allow students to explore issues of civil rights and social justice in their major including environmental justice.
The existence of the RHERI will allow our clubs to deepen their chapter partnerships with the parent organizations of the Alabama Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and Master Gardeners associations. It is our hope that these community organizations will utilize this space for meetings and educational opportunities.
5. Work with consultants, local business, and faculty to create a plan for restoration that respects the history of the land.
Partnering with the community we want to highlight our Native American ethnobotany, save our tenant farming history, and work to restore our native landscapes. By creating these new learning spaces, we can illustrate the history of Alabama land use on campus.
The creation of the RHERI, and in particular the appointment of a director, will open the door to important new grants and research opportunities.
AUM has already started small-scale restoration projects on wetland areas feeding into retention ponds, has replaced some landscaping with native plants, constructed a small pollinator garden and installed a chimney swift tower and blue bird boxes to support native bird populations. We envision a landscape-scale restoration that includes Oliver Creek, which feeds to the Alabama River, and its floodplain. We propose to restore the local watershed and remediate storm runoff from campus and parts of a shopping development south of the interstate (East Chase Shopping Mall).
The restoration project will expand the footprint of the RHERI to include a wetland restoration of our floodplain with boardwalks that allow visitors to examine the native plants of the restored ecosystem. Additional interactive educational signage as well as virtual signage installed along the forest trails and boardwalks.
The Department of Biology and Environmental Science at AUM has three faculty who have expertise relevant to these projects. The restoration projects will be tied to course work on campus, and will provide opportunities for community partnerships, government partnerships, research partnerships, and programming for local schools.
Appointments to the Advisory Board for the RHERI can create strong, new partnerships leading to diverse programming and a more intentional evolution of the Institute. Advisory board members will represent local government agencies, school systems, and local non-profit organizations. Additionally, a strong and diverse board will increase the RHERI’s ability to generate funding for scholarships and advanced programming.
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Professor/Head | College of Sciences
Ph.D. (2005) Auburn University in Biology
BS (1998) Florida Institute of Technology in Marine Biology
Dr. Ward’s research focuses are on immunology and stress physiology as it relates to temperature and changing environments. She also has interested in latitudinal gradients in stress physiology, immunology, and metabolism in Anurans.