Remembering Ralph Turner: Conservation Pioneer

Most of us take ecology as a given.  It has become the basis for one of the high school biology texts connected with the BSCS(Biological Science Curriculum Study).  This is a change from the past.  When I went to high school, BSCS offered two books, one dealing with molecules. amino acids, and the double helix, the other featuring a descriptive, classification biology.  However, a biology book devoted totally to ecology was still unknown in the 1960s.  During the period of growth that led to an increased awareness of conservation and ecology, it is easy to forget the pioneers that took the first bold steps in changing the education of natural science to include the interconnectedness of all living organisms.  In two previous posts, I discussed the innovative ecological approach of Crater High’s Hans Smith.  In this post, I’m going to go back further in time, to the 1960s.

A young tall man with wiry frame and a restless manner was applying for an administrative job in the Los Angeles Public Schools.  Ralph Turner was bursting with ideas when he entered the administrator’s office, carrying a briefcase stuffed with concepts and future plans.  Mr. Turner adjusted his glasses while putting his thoughts together.  During the waiting period, his mind drifted.  He saw himself at the ranch that he had built with his brother-in-law:  the green water tower, the pipes that required fixing every weekend because of vandalism, the bright yellow of lemons glistening in the sun, the nearby gully that was usually dry.  “Mr. Turner”, a voice boomed out.  Ralph took out the papers he had put together for the bold new venture, his eyes sparkling with excitement.  And Mr. Turner gesticulated and expanded on his notion of a science center that would enable students to view, learn and experience the importance of conservation.  “Very interesting,  Mr. Turner.  I’ll think about it.”  A short time later, Ralph had a look of triumph:  the Monlux Environmental Center was born and he would be the director!

Mr. Turner’s famous book, Conservation In Miniature, described the steps needed to maintain a conservation center.  Paul F. Brandwein, President of the Center of Study of Instruction, realized the importance of Ralph’s fledgling center.  “The major thrust in American education is to enrich the world of the child…   And it is to this end that the Monlux Environmental Center was developed…The next decades will see whether or not we can heal our environment, whether or not our culture can maintain an environment to sustain those who live-or will live…Thousands of Environmental Centers–to assist millions of individual and group efforts–need to be born.  The Monlux Environmental Center furnishes an enviable model of one such center.”  And so, in 1962, Mr. Turner’s dream project was realized.

There was much work to do:  culling volunteers, creating riparian environments, collecting animals, preparing mini- informative talks for the thousands of children that would visit the center.  Ralph was tireless in his unbounded enthusiasm, racing here and there to make conservation known throughout Southern California.  He went to visit schools with sets of slides, showing the effects of erosion, possible ecological disaster, but telling his stories with a sense of humor that encouraged questions from his eager young listeners.

And children did visit the Center.  Busloads and busloads came to hear about the importance of conservation.  But not only to hear, but to see, to touch, to smell.  Their minds flew from ancient geological formations to recent sedimentation.  They learned how to grow crystals, how to take care of animals, what a watershed meant, how to preserve the landscape and what the threats to ecological destruction were.  Children began to see their world in a different perspective and new concepts and ways of thinking filtered through their questioning minds.

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, Evelyn de Wolfe, had this to say about the Center:  “Children who are bused to Monlux are taught how to conserve water, soil, plants, and wildlife, how to guard against devastation through fire and flood, and learn how Los Angeles gets its water, saves it and delivers it.”

Mr. Turner watched his center expand and the ideas of ecology and conservation sprinkled the speeches of legislators.  Ralph had set the wheels in motion and his experiment was spreading ever further and encompassing ever greater spaces.  But he continued to work, improve, rethink, redesign, according to newer and newer discoveries of science.  And, when he retired, his analytical mind continued to help dozens of students with suggestions,  problem solving and honing the perception of their surroundings, and, of course, ideas about conservation.

Ralph was one of conservation education’s pioneers.  His twinkling eyes. light-hearted humor and zest for rivers and fishing will be missed.  But he would be gratified to know that conservation and ecology have become essentials for high school biology–that one of his major goals was achieved– and that the search for the understanding of the interconnectedness of all life forms goes on.


“The Kids Are Where They Want To Be”: Hans Smith And Environmental Science, Part 2.

We also have a fish egg project.  We have seventeen aquariums throughout our district that were paid for by the Rogue Valley Fly Fishing Association.  They are ten-gallon tanks with styrofoam around them.  Each tank can hold up to 500 eggs.  We have a group of students that will set up the tanks for the teachers and then take the eggs to all the elementary schools that have tanks.  The kids put together a set of three to four lectures, and, in the classroom, they talk about life cycles of the salmon and what is happening with their eggs.  They play a game called Hooks and Ladders( a take off on the famous children’s game, Chutes and Ladders), which is a salmon game that shows the migration up and back and what obstacles the fish have to go through.

We also do various projects around the valley.  We do things for the stream survey for Boise Cascade Lumber Co.  We have gone up to the fish hatchery(on the Rogue River) when they have spawned fish with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.  We have some kids working with the Bear Creek Greenway people doing some inventories.( The Greenway is a riparian project which starts above Central Point and finishes in Ashland, a distance of some twenty miles!  The Greenway is ideal for bicycles, joggers, or people who just want to enjoy nature’s scenery.)

We got together with North Medford, South Medford and some of the other high schools to start a project along Bear Creek.  Our component will be the natural invertebrates.  Our kids are about to get hip boots on and get into the water and get dirty.  They are going to be studying six spots along Bear Creek collecting the data, compiling it, and then we will trade information.  I think North Medford is doing the water quality testing, so we will get information from them and we will give them our natural invertebrate information.

Are there any questions?

Q:  What is the requirement for students to get into this program?  Can anyone get in?

Yes!  The first time we offered it, we had 190 kids sign up.  So, we drew names of 104.  We do not ask kids to come back if I cannot trust them, because they cannot work independently.  They need to be able to go down and take stream samples.  Our kids range from 4.0 students looking at Ivy League schools to kids taking Fundamental English.

Q:  What does the assessment look like?  What is success and not success for a student?  Are they learning the content that they are supposed to be learning?

Yes.  Every Friday is test day.  We give a lot of homework, because we cannot cover it all at the creek.  When we assess their work with the creek and their projects, we develop individual rubrics.  So, their grade is a total of their homework, written work, tests, quizzes and the project.

Q:  And are the tests over the content they would have gathered by participating in the projects, or do you have a certain amount of lectures or readings that go along with them?

When we get into genetics, we have genetics tests.  I will give tests for each of the content areas in biology.  They will also have written tests on some of the work we do.  This works the same way with health and government.

Q:  Have you seen any difference in the performance on those tests between the group in the Rogue Ecology School versus the others?

The results are better with those who are down at the creek.  It could be that they are a little more motivated and want to stay in the program.  We tell them that they have to keep their grades up, not only with us, but in the other classes.  A lot of kids do not want to be down on the creek.  They are happy doing what they are doing and our kids are happy.  That is one of the reasons our success rate gets up a little higher on pen and pencil tests;  the kids are where they want to be.