The Port Arthur News
PORT NECHES —
When the average person gazes out over the Neches River, they see nothing but murky waters and wilted vegetation.
When Jim Westgate stands beside the river, he sees a thriving ecosystem and a unique terrain that is worthy of preservation.
“If you read about environmental issues in a paper, it’s fuzzy,” said Westgate, professor of earth and space sciences at Lamar University in Beaumont. “But if you learn to appreciate how unusual the environment is, it gives you a sense of how important it is to protect it.”
That’s the message Westgate has been trying to spread for the past 18 years at LU’s Teaching Environmental Science Institute, which familiarizes local EC-12 teachers with the environmental issues found on the Gulf Coast through hands-on experiences.
“Most grade school teachers, if they’re lucky, had four science courses at the university level,” Westgate said. “This is a great way to teach them very basic science with the theme of, ‘How do we impact the environment?’”
The 10-day course concluded Friday with an airboat ride at Port Neches Park, 634 Ave. C. The teachers took a ride out to the Bessie Heights Marsh — a section of the Neches River that was impacted particularly hard in 2004, when a barge struck the left right corner of the tanker Torm Mary and punched a hole into the fuel tank, causing a 30,000-gallon fuel oil spill.
“We wanted to tell them about the project to rehabilitate the marsh,” said Johnny Darcey, senior response officer for the Texas General Land Office’s Oil Spills and Response office. “When you go out there, you see a big open space. That’s not how a marsh is supposed to look. We’re restabilizing the ecosystem.”
During the program, the teachers explored Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center in Orange and took to the Neches River in canoes. Along with teachers from Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange and Vidor, two teachers from Louisiana also attended the program.
“I’m finally beginning to figure out that I can do what I love, which is teaching, and what I enjoy, which is getting out in the environment,” said Helen Umstead, who teaches sixth grade science at Scott Middle School in Scott, La., located on the outskirts of Lafayette. “I’ve already posted on Facebook telling other teachers that they have to try this program.”