Finding time for nature at the James River Ecology School

In April 2013, the new James River Ecology School at Presquile National Wildlife Refuge  in Virginia opened its doors to provide a unique environmental education opportunity. Jessica Templeton, education and program manager with the James River Association (JRA), tells us about the partnership between JRA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that has led to this one of a kind program. 

When thinking about field experiences and outdoor environmental learning, one of the greatest challenges educators face is the factor of time. There’s never enough of it! That is, until now.

The James River Ecology School at Presquile National Wildlife Refuge is offering a solution to fighting the ticking clock. The ecology school is a partnership between the James River Association (JRA) and the Service that offers environmental education opportunities that promote understanding, an appreciation of nature, and a commitment to protecting our natural resources.

JRES_Pontoon Boat

Students on the Spirit of the James, the 40-ft pontoon boat and floating classroom that transports students to the ecology school, which has a bunkhouse facility for overnight trips and a discovery center that holds the school’s classroom, kitchen, dining hall, and lab space.

In the making for five years before opening its doors in April 2013, the ecology school consists of a bunkhouse and the Menenak Discovery Center, allowing middle and high school groups to have two-to-three-day long overnight experiences at the refuge. These overnight programs are vital to create interest and foster engagement. The amount of time spent on an environmental education program is one of the key best practices linked to a positive influence on a student’s knowledge, awareness, skills, attitudes, intentions, behaviors, and enjoyment of nature. On an overnight program, youth have the opportunity to get their feet wet and hands dirty with applied sciences and cross-curricular studies that help meet Virginia Department of Education Standards of Learning. All without the constraints of a ticking clock and four walls.


The Menenak Discovery Center has a lab space where students can take a closer look at nature’s hidden foundations.

Presquile National Wildlife Refuge is the ideal location for a school devoted to environmental education and is a place where time seems to stand still. Prior to the development of the ecology school program, Presquile was mostly inaccessible due in large part to the fact that the refuge is surrounded by water. That’s right, Presquile is an island refuge in the James River. Despite its seemingly remote nature, the refuge is located near major urban areas in the Virginia tidewater region, including the cities of Richmond, Hopewell, and Petersburg. This proximity and a 40-foot pontoon boat that functions both as island transport and a floating classroom, makes the ecology school easily accessible to hundreds of schools within the James River Watershed. It’s the first of its kind located within the local refuge system of the students and their historic home river, the James.

While educators search for the extra time, I want to leave you with a thought from an AP biology student from Chesterfield County who spent three days at the refuge through an ecology school overnight program: “Sometimes you just need to stop whatever you are doing and think, breathe, and appreciate. Appreciate the beauty of the world around you. Savor the moment, before it’s too late.”

Learn more about the James River Ecology School!

That’s the type of advice we can all take to heart. JRA’s education staff and the Service are savoring these moments with students at every ecology school program activity, as they too find the time to pause, inquire, seek understanding, and appreciate the natural world around them.

Stay connected with Presquile National Wildlife Refuge!photo-3

Will you be in the Chesapeake Bay region? Download the National Wildlife Refuges: Chesapeake Bay App! Learn about refuges, take wildlife photos and share observations with a community of nature lovers and scientists around the world.

One Comment on “Finding time for nature at the James River Ecology School

  1. Pingback: Instilling a sense of wonder | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

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