Job spotlight: Michael Dentzau, executive director of CSU's Oxbow Meadows

Executive director of Columbus State University's Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 23, 2013 

Michael Dentzau spent the first 25 years of his career working as an environmental consultant, both in the private sector and with the state of Florida.

But about four years ago, the New Jersey native decided to shift gears and prepare himself for the education arena. It included pursuing a doctorate in science education at Florida State University and, ultimately, becoming director of the Sea-to-See Program there.

"The job of a consultant is often contentious, and I had enough of fighting for things," he said. "I was looking for a change and had always been interested in education. So I went back to school."

Dentzau, 54, had been with Sea-to-See about two years when he spotted the job opening at Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center on the Internet. In early August, he replaced George Stanton, a longtime Columbus State University biology professor and interim director of the center.

Oxbow Meadows itself opened off South Lumpkin Road in 1995, a 1,600-acre park blending elements of nature center, outdoor classroom and outreach program. An expansion project was launched in 2010, bringing Oxbow more elbow room for both visitors and staff.

The center is now operated by Columbus State in conjunction with the Columbus Water Works, with the latter's water treatment facility not far away.

Six weeks into his new job, the Ledger-Enquirer visited with Dentzau recently to discuss his work, mission and goals. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.

Is the Sea-to-See Program similar to what you do at Oxbow Meadows?

It's similar in that it is an outreach program by Florida State University, the Department of Biological Sciences, a very good outreach program that brought touch tanks into elementary schools. I would use FSU students as my educators, and get a group of two or three together, bring these tanks in and set up in a common area of the school. They would rotate their classes through every hour. So we developed a way of interacting with the animals to tie into the school's science standards. In many ways, that's the relationship we have here at Oxbow. We try to tie our curriculum and our educational programs to the state standards.

Do you want to take such a program into our local schools?

There are so many programs we're trying to develop. One that's definitely on top of our list is a program that goes out into the classrooms. I'm a real big believer in what's called the contextual model of learning, which basically says that the context you learn something in is very important to why you learn it, how you learned it and what you retained.

Being out here at the center, where (students) can actually interact with native habitats and habitats in restoration, and artificial habitats in a lot of cases -- see the animals, interact with the animals -- you just can't take that and bring it into the classroom.

But doing it all here requires -- because we usually have a group of 80 to 120 students come in -- I've got to have a whole staff of educators to be able to take them to various stations, timed adequately.

The school districts also have to have adequate money to bus their students to us, which is becoming increasingly more difficult, plus pay the nominal fee that we charge for programs.

So classroom visits are more efficient?

The benefit of that is instead of having four classes all at once that we do in two hours, we can go hour by hour to four different classrooms and repeat the same program. I only need to have one, perhaps two staff, to go do that as opposed to four or five here. So it's much more manageable for me. It also would be cheaper on the school districts and schools.

How soon might you get that started?

I'm shooting for the spring of next year to have a model up and running. I'm trying to arrange some partnerships with local schools to try it out … Again, I have to have the staff to develop these programs. Right now they're focused on the center and not focused on bringing it to the schools. So we have to tweak everything and change it and make sure it works and flows. There's a lot of work that goes into that.

How large is your staff?

I have two full-time educators. I have a part-time media specialist that works with another agency in the university. I have an administrative assistant that greets people and takes care of the financial records. There's a facility coordinator position that's open and that I'm currently interviewing for. And then I have student staff. They work between 15 and 25 hours, depending upon our needs. They have been with us quite some time and are integral to what we do here.

The student staffing is like an internship?

I would say it's kind of like an internship. They get paid to do the job. They take care of a lot of the animals that we have out here, a lot of the behind-the-scene things. And they're the staff that runs the center on a Saturday or a Sunday when the rest of the full-time staff takes off.

Any other changes you are considering?

As anyone who's been to the center knows, we've focused on reptiles. That's been a cornerstone of what we've done and we're not going to change that. But we are going to add to it. One of the main things we want to do is get a broader focus on water resources in general. That would expand the types of animals from just reptiles to all sorts of other animals. We're not going to do birds at this point in time because that's just too exhaustive of a venture.

But we are going to do amphibians and more native fish, insects, all different aspects of the ecosystem. Everybody loves to come out and see what I call the charismatic megafauna -- the alligator. But the important thing for education with kids, and biodiversity, is not necessarily these large things that we all see and think of, but all of the smaller things that support them. Without those, we would not have those larger things. So it's trying to bring in some of the smaller, less conspicuous things, the harvester ant, various dragonflies.

I have to ask. How far north on the Chattahoochee River can an alligator be found?

Once you cross the fall line and start getting into where the Chattahoochee turns into much more elevation and a narrower channel (such as near downtown Columbus), you're going to lose their type of habitat.

What about snakes?

We have lots of native snakes that go mostly unnoticed by the average individual. … Where do you think that most snakebites would occur? … It's if you're outdoors, and if you're hiking, but it's usually not your legs or your feet. It's your arms, where you're reaching to touch the snake.

Where do your animals at the center come from?

All of the animals that we have out here, the snakes and the alligators and the turtles, they've all been either purchased or have been rescued and cannot be rehabilitated and put back into the wild. We have a contractor that works with us and helps supply us with those during the year. We have a permit from the (Department of Natural Resources) to be able to exhibit and use them for educational purposes, but not for collection purposes.

What do you think of your location here at Oxbow Meadows?

It's situated very nicely. We have enough room out here. If we were to move north by the Coca-Cola Space Science Center, for example, which would put us downtown, we would be limited to our immediate physical building and our nearby ground. We have the ability here to go out and extend for several hundred acres.

Did the center and its amenities and the large natural acreage sell you on the job?

Really, the thing that sold me when I came to CSU and interviewed for the position, was generally the whole attitude of the community and support for a facility like this. There are so many partners that make this place possible. Columbus Water Works for one, that had the vision to start this. It's been here for 18 years and we're coming up on our 20th anniversary in just a little bit.

It expanded and through a Local Option Sales Tax we were able to get this new building. There's so much buy-in with the community. It gave me the idea that the potential was limitless out here.

What's your job description and the mission of the center?

The mission of the center is to be the environmental education go-to place. We want to be the place that people think of and come to for help in designing curriculum, for implementing curriculum, for educating the public, from ages 3 to 93. We're not just looking at K through 12. We're looking at all sorts of education opportunities. That's really what we want this place to be. That being said, I'm also a faculty of CSU, so I will be teaching some classes in the college of education and health professions. My classes will probably be down here.

What do you think of your neighbors, the National Infantry Museum and, at some point, the 1850s-era village of Westville?

It's all positive. We're all about the more people you get in the door, the better we feel that we're doing our mission. It's not a financial situation necessarily. We don't look at it as, this is how much money we brought in today, because that's not what we do. It's how many people did we bring in today.

We already partner with the Infantry Museum with summer camps where children will be there for one portion of the day and at our facility for the second portion, or vice-versa.

I can see Westville bringing increasing traffic to us. In a lot of ways the living landscape that they're promoting -- all of the inhabitants of that time -- very much used the natural resources. So there's actually a linkage between us and them. We're trying to restore natural habit and native community habitat. And they're trying to replicate the lifestyle back then. Well, those two things dovetail really nicely.

Are there any physical changes under consideration?

In the near future, I'm looking at improving the trail system that we have out here. That means we have to cut back a little bit of poison ivy and make it safer for the students. We're going to start some projects for the Boy Scouts, maybe develop a camping area out here, with merit badge programs. We have a Creek heritage trail site, with four plaques that are going to be (installed) in the spring, right out on the riverwalk at the connection with Oxbow. We may have some more interpretive materials inside here. We're discussing with Fort Benning and what they have for us to be able to display and how we can display it adequately.

We want to develop a curriculum to get kids out on the Chattahoochee, kayaking back and forth on the Chattahoochee to the Upatoi (Creek). That would be fun and educational.

Do you do water quality tests?

We have in the past worked with adopt-a-stream types of programs. I've just spoken with the folks that are spearheading that -- the river warden and his group -- and we are going to look at bringing it back to Oxbow.

What's the toughest aspect of your job moving forward?

Prior to this job and prior to my last two years at Florida State University, my job was basically a business. I ran a consulting business. So I'm very much aware of what it takes to run an organization. And what it takes to run an organization is funds. Probably the biggest limitation that I will have for any initiative, and the thing that will keep me up at night, is making sure that we have funds to keep the staff here employed, and to continue growing in a positive direction.

That's every household's problem.

It is, exactly. That's everybody's problem, and we're the same. And everybody is looking for support these days. It's much more difficult to find that from the federal government, from state government and from local donors.

What interaction do you have with the Water Works?

The facilities here are managed by Water Works. So when my lights go out, Water Works comes. When the floor needs to be replaced, the Water Works comes. They pay my electric bill, they pay my water bill, right, they manage this facility. They take care of the grounds out here. They will take care of my trails. They've told me I just need to ask, and if it's reasonable and associated with this building, they'll take care of it … Because of that, my budget, or what the university spends, is substantially reduced.

Which is a blessing.

Definitely. This is very much a partnership. CSU is a major partner, but so is the Water Works. Without the two of them working in concert together, this would not be here.

How many people go through the facility each year?

About three years ago, program-wise, we had about 9,700 students come through here. Programs might be classes coming in for a dedicated program. It might be weekend reptile programs or festivals or things of that nature. The following year, that was 13,000, and last year, it was almost 20,000 … We're definitely growing. … (Those visitation numbers are) only for our dedicated programs. That's not what we call walk-ins.

Could you eventually reach 40,000 visitors?

Yeah, I think we can hit 40,000. It's not going to happen this summer. But I think we could reach that number. That's because the types of programs we want to develop would really diversify what we offer out here. Right now we focus on a niche, people that want to hike our trail, do a little birding, and come out and see our reptiles. Once we expand that to offer all sorts of other things, we can increase the pools that we draw from.

How far do the schools come from for visits to the center?

Mostly, Muscogee County is the school district that comes here now. Occasionally, we have a group that will come from Harris County … but we haven't had anybody this year from Harris County. That just gets to be logistically a problem with transportation issues. One of the other things we're trying to look for is grant money to provide some of the schools in the outlying areas the opportunity to come spend a day.

Should you market the center at some point as an educational tourist attraction?

I'm mixed on that. If it was all about revenue, I would have to market it that way. But it's not all about revenue. We're trying to generate enough revenue, but we're trying to do that through providing things that are educationally unique for the community. That's so people want to come back and donate $5 here or $5 there, or so we can bring in larger donations from some of our other community members.

What's the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Last week, we had Clubview Elementary School here. I was short an educator, so I had to pitch in and do some of the sessions, which I love to do. They came in and sat here in the auditorium and had their lunch with the reptiles around them. And, then, just hearing the "oohs" and "aahs" and "Oh my, look at this," and "Can you believe this?"

I'm sitting at my computer and typing away letters and answering emails, and I'm listening to that excitement out there. That, by far, is the most fulfilling, knowing that there is an educational opportunity going on and they're excited. They're into it. That means they're going to learn and take something home with them. That's what it's all about.

BIO:

Name: Michael Dentzau

Age: 54

Hometown: North Arlington, N.J.

Current residence: Midland area of Columbus

Education: 1977 graduate of North Arlington High School; bachelor's of science degree in biology with a specialization in marine biology, Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1981; master's degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences, Texas A&M University, 1985; specialist in science education, Florida State University, 2011; and Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, science education emphasis, Florida State University, 2013.

Previous jobs: 2011-2013 -- Sea-to-See program director, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Fla.; 2010-2011 -- research assistant, Research Experience for Teachers NSF project, Florida State University; 1999-2011 -- president of Bosso, Dentzau & Imhof Inc., Tallahassee, Fla. (responsible for all aspects of company development and project management, including wetland and upland evaluations, environment site assessments, endangered species reviews, habitat enhancement and restoration and regulatory guidance); 1996-1999 -- president of Piedmont Environmental Services, Tallahassee, Fla.; 1993-1996 -- project manager, The Phoenix Environmental Group, Tallahassee, Fla. (environmental consulting in wetlands and listed species); 1985-1993 -- environmental manager/specialist, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (various positions, including training and program development, wetland rule development and regulatory program implementation and supervision).

Family: Talley, wife of 27 years, (works in administration at Doctors Memorial Hospital in Perry, Fla.); son, Andrew, 24, a graduate student (learning and cognition) at Florida State University; and daughter, Kara, 21, a junior at Florida State (double major in psychology and speech pathology).

Leisure time: Enjoys bicycling, kayaking, hiking and photography.

Of note: Has authored/co-authored 14 professional presentations and/or journal articles ranging from marine fisheries to informal science education.

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