Uptown pays tab for teachers to raft whitewater course

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJune 5, 2013 

Hardaway High School environmental science teacher Brenda Howell gushed like the rapids she just rafted through as she discussed how Columbus whitewater can be an educational experience for her students.

"To be able to learn it in the classroom and follow it up with a field trip -- oh, we'll definitely be out here," she said.

Howell was among the 110 Muscogee County School District teachers who were treated Wednesday to the ride down the Chattahoochee River's 2.5-mile course, which opened two weeks ago and is billed as the world's longest stretch of urban whitewater.

Uptown Columbus Inc., the nonprofit organization chartered to revitalize the city's downtown, paid the roughly $3,000 tab for the teachers' trip and will host teachers from Phenix City and Russell County on June 18. Each of Muscogee County's public schools were allotted two spots on the trip, but some schools sent three teachers when all the tickets weren't claimed.

Howell, one of the three finalists for MCSD's 2013 Teacher of the Year award, noted the Whitewater Columbus story offers a significant teaching opportunity: how 19th-century Columbus business leaders harnessed the Chattahoochee's water power at the fall line to create massive mills, and how 21st-century Columbus business leaders breached two of those dams to return the river to its natural state.

"You build dams and it alters the ecosystems and the species are lost and the habitats are rearranged or destroyed," she said ."Then you take the dams out and have some of the habitats and species actually come back … I mean, we saw blue heron nests out there!"

Blanchard Elementary School third-grade teacher Scott Stafford also found exciting educational possibilities in the river course's blend of science and history.

"We just went outside our school and studied the rocks there," he said. "Imagine if they come down here."

Uptown also wants the local teachers who go through Columbus whitewater to generate ideas about how the course can be used and marketed to attract educational groups from outside the area, said David White, chairman of Uptown's River Restoration Education Task Force. He also is the Troy University vice chancellor in charge of the Phenix City campus, which is moving to a site on the riverbank across from Columbus and is scheduled to open in October 2014.

"We're trying to, first of all, showcase the rapids," White said, "and in doing that to showcase the fact that the river is back. It always was a bad place and dirty. You told your kids not to go there. But now, we're using it to attract people to our community."

Among the ideas already mentioned:

• Before or after riding the rapids, enhance the learning with lessons from professors at Columbus State University on the Georgia side or Troy on the Alabama side.

• Create pullout points along the river, where groups can better see what the guides are talking about, such as a visit to the National Civil War Naval Museum or Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center.

• Build a boat that acts as a floating classroom, perhaps with a glass bottom so the river's wildlife can get even more up close and personal.

The task force wants the school districts to form committees that will propose ways to integrate the river experience into the classrooms, White said.

"We hope to find champions for this, because it can be more than just about science" he said. "What about the art of the river, the history of the river?"

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