Sneed Prairie field trips provide opportunities for students of all ages

By Samuel Gonzalez ’24

Fall 2023 marks just one year since the Center for Environmental Studies resumed field trips to the Clinton and Edith Sneed Environmental Research Area and Prairie Restoration Site for 4th and 5th grade students across Texoma. These field trips have been led by Austin College students for more than 20 years. To date, the program has provided hands-on educational experiences relating to the natural history and restoration of the Blackland Prairie for over 12,000 students from area schools.

Two hundred years ago, the tall grass prairies of North Central Texas were nothing like the forests and pastures of today. Back then, the area was characterized by perennial grasses and forbs, which were grazed by large migratory herds of bison. Semi-frequent fires, some natural and some set by humans, played the role of preventing forest growth in the prairie. It was only when bison were hunted into endangerment and replaced with cattle for farms — which helped to suppress fire and introduce non-native grasses — that the prairie began to transform into what we see today.

In addition to prairie function and composition, visiting classes also learn about Austin College’s effort to restore the property to its original ecological state through experimental treatments. Many of the field trip leaders have participated in such efforts, which occasionally involve the use of controlled fires. Some fields are also mowed or grazed by cattle, which are used to simulate bison herds, on a rotational basis.

Guides often use local features like creeks and wooded areas to illustrate the consequences of the prairie’s transformation: species and habitat loss; flooding and erosion; aquifer depletion and more. Other times, schoolchildren asked to rely on their imagination: Field trip leaders regularly invite classes to spread native grass and wildflower seeds and then form a great bison herd to stomp them into the ground. While not required, most schoolchildren enjoy doing this activity with their fingers at their temples to feign horns, accompanied by plenty of moo-ing (their best guess at the sounds bison make).

“It’s wonderful to see the kids having fun in nature and connecting what they learn about the prairie to appreciate it,” says senior Olivia Berggren, who is starting her second year as a guide. For students like her, the field trip program offers an opportunity to interact with younger generations and preview working in environmental education.

For more information or to schedule a field trip at Sneed Prairie, visit our website or contact Rebecca Jones.

Sneed Prairie Restoration awarded 2020 Texas Environmental Excellence Award by TCEQ

By Tulwen Adams ’22

In the spring of 2020, the Austin College Sneed Prairie project received the Texas Environmental Excellence Award (TEEA) for the provision of outstanding education to K-12th grade students in Grayson County, Texas. Recipients of the TEEA are recognized as leading environmental programs with the potential to inspire like-minded organizations and individuals to implement initiatives within their own communities.

The 2019 recipient of the TEEA is EcoRise, a non-profit organization which has served over 68,000 students by providing access to materials, training, and grants to fund environmental education and initiatives in Texas schools. With the precedent set by the exceptional work of EcoRise, it is an honor for the Austin College Sneed Prairie Project to be similarly awarded, as well as a credit to the hard work, dedication, and generosity of the benefactors, faculty, and students of the Austin College community.

The Sneed Prairie was donated to Austin College in 1984 by Clinton and Edith Sneed. The property is comprised of one hundred acres divided into nine experimental fields and one remnant of intact prairie. With the inception of the Sneed Prairie restoration project in 1996, treatments of fire, cattle, and mowing were implemented on the nine experimental fields with an end goal of evaluating their effectiveness while restoring the site to native tallgrass prairie.

Old Sneed Farm
Photo provided by the Sneed family (c.1950s)

As well as providing an opportunity for research and restoration, the Sneed Prairie also serves Austin College and the larger Grayson County school system as an invaluable educational resource. Austin College students in the biology, physics, and environmental studies departments have the opportunity to study the Sneed Prairie during laboratory classes, or as upperclassmen participating in independent studies. Every two years, students of all departments have the option of taking a January Term class focused on the controlled burning of select fields at Sneed.

The field trips conducted at the Sneed Prairie are designed to provide environmental education on the history, ecological function, and importance of restoration projects to students from elementary, middle, and high schools in Grayson County. Austin College undergraduates lead the trips, engaging students in activities designed to model water uptake or native grass seed dispersal on the prairie. The prehistorical legacy of the prairie is still apparent in the 21st century ecosystem, which is also highlighted to students.

AC student field trip guides help local 4th graders discover the natural world at Sneed Prairie

The Texas landscape which today is comprised of agricultural fields, with a few prairies similar to Sneed scattered in between, was an inland sea during the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, evident today by the fossils still found along riverbeds. Alongside the prehistory of the prairie, K-12th grade students have the opportunity to explore more recent history of the prairie by learning about how the bison, wolves, and wildfires maintained the prairie as a grassland with few trees. As of fall 2019, the Sneed Prairie project has provided education to more than 11,000 schoolchildren during these field trips.

Highlights from the 2021 Prairie Restoration JanTerm course at Sneed

(Photos by Syed Kamal)