Rejuvenated Nature Exploratorium is back, going full throttle

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, May 6, 2015

SALISBURY — The Tom E. Smith Nature Exploratorium is such a long, bulky name for a place where kids can scoop up crayfish, hold salamanders, look out for rat snakes and marvel at raccoon scat — all in the name of science.

Manned with nets, buckets and clipboards, 40 fifth-grade students from Millbridge Elementary School systematically searched the Nature Exploratorium Tuesday morning, as science specialist Anne Ellis introduced them to the wonders of the wetlands.

This 24-acre N.C. Natural Heritage Area behind Horizons Unlimited has experienced a rejuvenation, thanks to $100,000 in donations from Smith and Fred Stanback Jr. that have been used to replace boardwalks and bridges crucial to studying the wetland ecosystem without disturbing its beauty and balance.

Until the carefully planned replacement project, portions of the nature area had to be closed off, which cramped the style of the educational program. But it’s back in full operational mode now, reaching virtually every fifth-grader in the Rowan-Salisbury and Davie County school systems.

Eco-friendly materials were used in the reconstruction of the bridges and boardwalks.

The Millbridge students were on site from 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Tuesday, and by the time they left, they knew how to identify a wide array of aquatic species, wetland plants and hydrology indicators.

Wear figures about 500,000 students have explored this area as part of their environmental education and research studies since 1990, when Smith provided the original funding to establish the Nature Exploratorium.

“You see why it was worn out after 25 years,” Wear says. “That’s a lot of foot traffic.”

It also has been open for the public to enjoy and explore — and still is.

Besides the boardwalks and bridges, the Nature Exploratorium includes teaching platforms, trails and walkways through the site, which adjoins the Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Preserve at Catawba College.

A full day is planned at Horizons Unlimited this coming Saturday. The education center is located at 1636 Parkview Circle near Knox Middle School.

To celebrate the recent donations of Smith and Stanback and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Nature Exploratorium, Horizons Unlimited and Rowan-Salisbury Schools will hold a re-dedication ceremony from 2-2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Guests will include Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody, Board of Education Chairman Josh Wagner, Dr. Julie Morrow, Wear, Smith, Stanback and Scout Troop 442.

From 2:30-4 p.m., outdoor activities will include the following:

• Refreshments on the porch.

• Wetland delineation: What is a wetland?

• Wetland flowers.

• Aquatic life.

• A visit to the 1842 Setzer log school.

A planetarium program — “The Moon: Earth’s Natural Satellite” and “Live Salisbury Skies” — will follow from 5-6 p.m., then a laser show in the planetarium from 6:30-7:30 p.m.

During the renovation work in the wetlands, Wear learned that Franco Goodman served as chairman of  the Horizons Unlimited Advisory Council in 1990 when the Nature Exploratorium was created. One of his sons, Nick, often explored the area as a kid, and an adult Nick Goodman was heavily involved in the replacement project.

Not long into their studies of the Nature Exploratorium, the Millbridge fifth-graders were busily making checkmarks next to the indicators they found telling them this was a true wetland.

“Now that we’ve established it’s a wetland, it’s got to be protected,” Ellis said.

But soon it was off toward a platform from where the students used their long-handled nets to bring up all the aquatic life they could find. They would use identification guides later to tell them what they had caught.

“If you find something wiggly in there, pick it out and get it to the bucket,” Ellis said.

Now that’s a field trip.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or