TVA Plant Camp 2018 hosted several teachers from around the Tennessee Valley for a hands-on camp dealing with the diversity of the Tennessee Valley waterways. On Wednesday, the teachers looked at plants and on Thursday, they moved up the food chain to connect the ecologies.

The program is mainly for Tennessee Valley teachers, which this year included teachers from Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi.  

“The reason for the program is to expose the teachers to the amazing diversity of species and ecology in our own back yards,” TVA aquatic plant program manager Brett Hartis said.

The teachers spent one day working with aquatic and terrestrial plants. This included identification of the plants and getting out on the reservoir seeing some of the management programs TVA is a part of and how it works.

The teachers spent another day working with fish species. The Tennessee Valley is about three times more diverse than all of Europe. Most people are not aware of this fact but these teachers have seen a lot of difference species that Lake Guntersville has in its waters.

The teachers also spent some time at one of the waterfowl management areas and learned about waterfowl management, quality and prescribed fire use. The teachers traveled to Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge and watched the emergence of the bats.

The camp is available to 24 teachers. Hartis said it started small but has grown. If a teacher wants to be involved in the camp, they have to have an application, an essay and a letter of recommendation. The camp takes only 24 teachers each year but they have had as many as 150 applicants.

On Thursday, the teachers spent time with TVA and ADCNR (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) participating in electrofishing and fish seining and sampling. Seining is a fishing method that uses a net that hangs vertically in the water and the teachers could see the diverse ecosystems in the nets.

On the water, the teachers participated in electrofishing. The boat works by using a direct current flowing between a submerged cathode and anode. It travels from electrodes in the front of the boat to the base, where the electrical current works in about a six-foot sphere around the boat. In some cases the fish are drawn to it and it inflates their swim bladder. The current is not a constant current, but a regulating current so the fish recover quickly. Electrofishing is used to help in the scientific survey method of sampling fish populations. It is not harmful to the fish and leaves no permanent damage.

The reason TVA uses electrofishing is to take samples in order to look at the classes and diversity of the fish. Essentially, what happens while electrofishing is the boat puts off an electrical current that passes through the water. It is not injuring the fish in any way. Hartis explained that it is similar to going to a chiropractor and having your muscles stimulated. What happens to the fish is it inflates their swim bladder and they float to the top briefly. The person that is netting the fish has to do it quickly because the stimulation does not last long.

The goal with TVA Plant Camp is to expose the teachers to the diversity of the Valley and provide them with lots of information to give to their students. Unfortunately, according to Hartis, it seems like children are not as inclined to explore creeks or other areas around them, so the teachers are the link to help them understand the area.

The camp gives the teachers first-hand experience with all TVA does besides making electricity. There were 12 partners working with the camp including  U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Alabama Forestry Commission and several sponsors. The reason for the partnership is to get the teachers exposed to more than just TVA, so they can take the experience back to their classrooms.

One teacher from Douglas Middle School discussed her experience at the camp. Laurie Biddle teaches seventh grade life science. This is her 24th year to teach, and she has had several opportunities to experience these types of  camps. Biddle grew up along the coast in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and did several workshops and conferences at Dauphin Island. She taught in Troy, Alabama for six years where she learned a lot about the ecosystem before meeting her husband in Auburn. The couple moved to Marshall County and has lived here for 18 years.

Her goal in attending the camp was to learn more about Lake Guntersville and the TVA. She wanted to know more about the ecosystem and especially the aquatic botany. This was her first opportunity to do this which is something similar to what you would do in a graduate class. This was not her first hands on experience, but she rates TVA’s program as one of the top programs.

She has taught high school for 16 years and is now teaching middle school. Her goal is to help her students learn and given them a foundation on what they will see in their high school biology classes. She explains that seventh graders love hands-on activities and she wants them to experience their ecosystem in person. She wants to give them a means to see that there are more aspects to their worlds than just her classroom. She wants to teach them how to recognize certain parts of the ecosystem around them. Her goal is for the students to notice a plant and recall some information they were taught in class about the plant.

Biddle is a scientist at heart and loves the interaction between the people who have extensive knowledge of TVA and the ecosystem of Lake Guntersville. She explained that her students can see pictures of a time before Lake Guntersville. Her hope is that they can look at the pictures and recall the class talking about the time before the lake. After the TVA Plant Camp, she will take back the knowledge she has from the program and explain it to the students. It also helps for her to have a stronger education foundation for herself.

She believes it is important to be able to take this experience back to the classroom and educate the students about the ecosystem and how it all works together. It is important for students to look at a body of water such as Lake Guntersville and know that there is more than just largemouth bass in there. She wants the students to know that there are all kinds of organisms that live in the water.

“Kids are very observant,” Biddle said. “They look at a roly-poly and have an interest in them or they can look at a snail and have an interest in that. As a teacher, I think it is important to understand our ecosystem and teach the kids about Alabama,” Biddle said.

The electrofishing group caught multiple fish and displayed them to the teachers for observation. The fish are all doing well, but the fish they caught were not unusual. In the tank, they had a lot of common fish such as several species of bass and gar.

The spotted gar lives in the vegetation in the lake. It likes to move it's tail slowly back and forth because it is an ambush fish. It waits for a fish to come along and it will reach out to grab the fish. The fish typically lives in the shallow water, but prefers the vegetation areas.

“The goal is to spread the message of not only what TVA does in terms of natural resource management, but all of the agencies that we collaborate with and make them able to take this back to the classroom,” Hartis said. “We give them skills and materials to take back to put into their curriculum so they still meet state standards and still stay within course work, but literally use things from right here to teach them about their environment.”

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