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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Palmyra Cove Grows from a Park to an Education Center


By Catherine Laughlin

Vicky Gorman, a science teacher at Medford Memorial Middle School, said she thinks that the 250-acre Palmyra Cove Nature Park, just south of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, may still be unfamiliar to some people.

As part of new ventures launching at the park and the environmental discovery center, Gorman was one of 14 area teachers who in August attended Earth SySTEM Summer Academy, designed to introduce teachers about applications of the Earth’s systems as related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

“It’s a special place right here in New Jersey that’s full of natural resources,” said Gorman, who also presented at the two-day event, an offshoot of the cove’s Institute for Earth Observations.

Twelve years ago, executive director Clara Ruvolo envisioned the park, home to hundreds of migratory birds, as well as deer, fox and mink, as being more than just a ruffle of greenery along the Delaware River.

For years, Palmyra Cove — land, that for the most part has been built up by deposited particles dredged from the river by the State of New Jersey — was only deemed a leisurely catchment for locals.

But a shift in the tide — which Ruvolo, her staff, and other nature lovers had earnestly campaigned for — has been realized: Palmyra Cove Nature Park is not only a recreational oasis for hiking, fishing, kayaking and birding, but a center devoted to the education and conservation of the Earth and its resources.

“Here at the park, there is so much that can educate people about water science, the wetlands, birding and marine biology,” Ruvolo said, citing the mission of the Palmyra Cove Education Foundation, a nonprofit established in 1999.

In 2003, the 10,000-square-foot Environmental Discovery Center opened on the site, with two levels of offices, labs and an exhibit hall that’s also home to Jack, an artfully stuffed peregrine falcon, who had once lived with his mate in the nesting box atop the bridge. The nature park operates on an annual budget of $300,000 gleaned from fundraising and the Burlington County Bridge Commission, which manages the site.

Today, the master plan of the center’s organizers calls for emphasizing the interconnectedness of the planet’s ecosystem with workshops for pre-K through college-level students, educators and the general public.

They’re currently establishing a geoscience remote laboratory, recently hatched with the addition of 20 17-inch Lenova laptops, a WeatherBug station and a display area equipped with satellite tracking. Data can be collected on sea surface temperatures, the climate, and earthquake and volcanic activity. The lab might not have happened without a $20,000 grant from MKM Foundation in Philadelphia, earmarked over four years.

“The earth and space studies are integral to a higher understanding of learning,” said John Moore, the center’s director of geosciences STEM education. “As people become more scientifically literate, it impacts voters and leaders.”

Moore, a veteran science teacher who worked for the National Science Foundation under the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship, also said the projects are integral to the Next Generation Science Standards, a benchmark adopted by at least 26 states, including New Jersey, which recommends schools incorporate curriculums that include climate change and evolution. Advocates like Moore believe these guidelines are vital to the emerging 21st-century workforce.

When naturalist Kristina Merola was hired nine years ago, there were a few beach programs offered at the cove, like scooping up tadpoles or tracking deer. Since then, she’s helped to expand the on-site sessions for visiting students from schools in Central and South Jersey and Pennsylvania. Costs are $8 to $10 per student.

She also leads Cove Caterpillars and Nature Craft and Story Time, two weekly parent-accompanied groups for kids ages 2 through 6 costing $5.

“The goal was to add more activities and to continue to grow and be an extension of the classroom for teachers,” said Merola. More than 6,000 students visited the center last year, up from 200 a decade ago.

This fall, Merola said the center will purchase a digital microscope for $5,000 with funds from a private donor for her microbiology classes.

Besides collaborating with societies like the American Meteorological Society and GLOBE (Global Learning through Observation to Benefit the Environment), the cove provides field study for local colleges such as Drexel University, which runs a competitive program called The Learning Bridge Day for engineering students.

“And we have a new relationship with Burlington County College to conduct outreach programs in a roving RV,” said Peter Dorofy, director of environmental education.

Other activities are gaining ground, too: photography and birding classes, and family outings like the Oct. 4 Octoberfest and the Frost & Feathers Ball held in February.

For more information about Palmyra Cove Nature Park’s events and classes, or to become a member visit palmyracove.org.

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