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Chris Beck: 'Hero' to the Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Oct. 18, 2016

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As an Emory professor, Chris Beck is engaged in the scientific study of laboratory teaching. This month, however, Beck is being honored for his volunteer efforts involving a very different laboratory: He's one of three finalists for the 2016 Cox Conserves Heroes for his work with the Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve. Emory Photo/Video

As a professor of pedagogy in Emory’s Department of Biology, Chris Beck is engaged in the scientific study of laboratory teaching, with a particular focus on how inquiry-based learning impacts students' science process skills and their understanding of the nature of science.

This month, however, Beck is being recognized for his work involving a very different laboratory.

Beck has been named as one of three finalists for the 2016 Cox Conserves Heroes award for his volunteer work at the Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve (CSNP), a 28-acre wildlife sanctuary located along the floodplain of South Peachtree Creek in Decatur.

For more than a decade, Beck has volunteered at CSNP, coordinating hundreds of volunteers from both Emory and the wider community, leading fundraising efforts and managing capital improvement projects. He’s also served as president of the CSNP volunteer board of directors for the past seven years.

In addition, this academic year Beck is serving as president of the Emory College Faculty Senate.

The Cox Conserves Heroes award was created by Cox Enterprises and The Trust for Public Land to honor volunteers “who create, preserve or enhance the shared outdoor spaces in our communities.”

Each finalist will be awarded $5,000 to be donated to a local environmental nonprofit of their choice; Beck has selected CSNP as his non-profit.

The final winner will be selected through an online public vote and will receive an additional $5,000 donation to their nonprofit. Voting runs through Oct. 26; final results will be announced mid-November.

Emory Report caught up with Beck to learn more about his efforts with the nature preserve.

How did you become involved with CSNP?

I live in the Medlock neighborhood, so the nature preserve is less than a mile from my house. I first came to know about it through some events they sponsored and came out for neighborhood volunteer days at the preserve. I eventually was invited to join the non-profit volunteer board, where I’ve been a member for several years. When the president rotated off, I was asked to step in as president.

Why is the preserve important?

From an ecological perspective, the preserve serves several purposes. It’s located on the floodplain of the south fork of Peachtree Creek, so it has a role in controlling storm water overflow and filtering the water that does flood out.

The preserve is also an important green space to a lot of wildlife, including over 150 to 160 species of birds, as well as amphibians, reptiles and a wide array of plants. It provides a great resource to both the local and broader Atlanta communities, in terms of offering a place to go and see wildlife and walk the trails.

It’s provided educational opportunities as well. Over the years, I’ve brought students from my ecology lab classes there and I know Georgia State University and Oglethorpe University use it, too. Emory has sent hundreds of volunteers there over the years. It’s provided a great way to engage the community.

How were you selected for the Heroes award?

I was nominated by Dave Butler, a friend and colleague on the board of the preserve who also works with a variety of green spaces and parks throughout the county. I actually knew nothing about it until someone from Cox called and said, “Congratulations, you are a finalist.”

Now the contest goes to the voting public?

Yes. They came out and did an interview and shot some footage at the preserve to go on their website. The finalist with the most votes will be chosen. If I win, the funds will go back to the preserve. Over the last several years we’ve been working to remove invasive plant species, specifically English ivy and Chinese privet. Now that we’ve done a lot of removal we want to replant with native species. Voting is open through Oct. 26.

When it comes to biology, you’ve long championed hands-on learning. How does that work in your classes at Emory?

I’ve always seen lab education as a way to combine teaching aspects and research aspects of the College’s mission — a way to have students work on real research problems. In collaboration with Dr. Larry Blumer at Morehouse College, we received funding from the National Science Foundation to develop the bean beetle (Callosobruchus maculatus) as a model system for guided inquiry-based lab classes in biology. We’ve also developed curriculum for how educators can use the beetle in their own classrooms.

More recently, we’ve been using it in our introductory lab courses for non-majors and biology majors to develop new research experiences. It allows for students to do authentic research addressing questions that we don’t know the answers to, gathering preliminary data that we can follow up on.

All of our introductory labs have been restructured so they are addressing new questions. And the response has been positive. It really gives students a flavor of what they might do later as independent researchers.