Measuring Influence: Does It End?

May 29, 2024
Jon Sounders portrait

A story by Barbara Moss on West Clermont High School science teacher Jon Sounders. This article is also featured in the June 7, 2024, issue of The Ripple.

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Every teacher is an influencer. Every teacher has a legacy. Jon Sounders’ story is an example of how a teacher can advance the cause of nature conservation while inculcating in young people ways of thinking and investigating that serve them into adulthood.

Mr. Souders (Don’t we refer to our teachers this way and remember them thus?). Mr. Souders developed his ethics and techniques as an educator because of circumstances. He didn’t intend to be a science teacher when getting a degree in physical education, but those required courses in kinesiology, physiology, and anatomy meant he could get certified to teach biology. As a middle school coach early in his career, he acquired the skill of managing large groups of kids in a field setting. Science study. Outdoors. A release of some degree of control.

When Jon discovered the Smokies as an economical vacation destination for his young family, his emotional ties to, and scientific interest in, that natural environment were born. In 1996, he was hired at West Clermont High School where he reported to administrators who encouraged hands-on education. That circumstance led Jon to take students on trips to The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, where they did field study on environmental impacts. He is particularly proud that their research on a vulnerable caddisfly population caused the park service to alter a management plan that called for the use of poison to extirpate an invasive species sharing the insect’s stream habitat.

In 1999, Ohio’s Department of Education started issuing school “report cards,” and West Clermont needed a program to demonstrate that they were pursuing “continuous improvement” in order to increase their score. Studies showed that smaller academic communities, theme-based subsets of the school, would lead to better educational outcomes. Responding to this shift in culture—another circumstance of note—Jon designed the School for Scientific Studies, partnered with Cincinnati Nature Center, and began bringing students to Rowe Woods monthly, where projects included water quality studies, observations of bird behavior, and box turtle monitoring with radio telemetry.

It is for the latter initiative that Jon Souders has gained the most recognition. What’s so special about turtles? He calls them “superfluous” as study subjects. They could have chosen to track deer, but those big mammals have a very big range. They could have tracked mice, but some of the students would have been squeamish about handling them, and they are disease vectors. Turtles? Well, they are slow, therefore easy to catch, and they don’t move very far within their habitat. They are not very dangerous to hold, though there is the minor threat of salmonella. They are long-lived and, as adults, are not as likely as other animals to be prey, so remain for years as study subjects. Jon says that they eventually become somewhat acclimatized to the students and often don’t retract into their shells when grasped. And turtles have charisma!

So, what’s special about this program? Jon notes that the kids are doing real-world science in a non-traditional setting, a powerful outcome. They collect and analyze data, they learn to use specialized technology, they develop their curiosity, and they pose questions that in some cases have significant value in the scientific community. Oh, yes, and they get out in nature in most seasons and weather conditions.

Here's how the program works: Jon’s students come to Rowe Woods once a week from April to November, when box turtles are active. As each new turtle is added to the study, a one-watt radio transmitter powered by watch batteries is glued to its shell. Standards prohibit attaching any device that is more than 5% of the turtle’s mass. Jon says that they have tried several adhesives over the years and settled on a product called JB Weld.

A 200-channel receiver with specialized antenna allows for directional signal reception. Each study subject is assigned a two-letter identification—AA, AB, . . . , AZ, Aa, Ab, . . . —and a frequency. As the students move through the area where they have been marking turtles, they record each transmission with the individual’s ID, its location, the date, and the weather conditions. Almost eighty individuals have been studied in the nineteen years of the program, with ten being regularly tracked at any time.

Sometimes a study subject goes missing, and an expensive transmitter—$185 each—is lost. AB disappeared for five years and then turned up again, its antenna no worse for the wear but with dead batteries. All the telemetry equipment was originally purchased in 2005 with $8000 out of a $50,000 grant from the Ohio Environmental Education Fund (OEEF). West Clermont chemistry teacher Kurt Whitford, now retired, was a co-author of the proposal and coordinated the field aspect of the program for seventeen years. Jon says that they kept each other inspired and engaged.

In the nearly two decades of the program, approximately 2500 students have been exposed to the turtle-telemetry research, through actual tracking—twenty at a time—or field trips or classroom activities. By way of connections he developed at science conferences, Jon convinced like-minded educators from four other local schools to replicate the program. The goal is to get students from West Clermont High and the coalition together, “cross-pollinating” and collaborating on projects they design.

What have Jon’s classes learned? Box turtles all return to the same area to burrow for the winter, and burrows may contain multiple individuals. They dig in just under the leaf litter for the winter, sometimes deeper, but rarely more than fifteen inches. Their ranges are at most about three-quarters of a mile. They will emerge in winter and become active if it is warm enough and if insects—their food source—are also active.

Evidence from Jon’s program that box turtles spend late fall and winter strictly in the forest has helped the Nature Center’s conservation department determine when to conduct controlled burns of adjacent fields. And before the bulldozers moved in to clear the land for the Nature PlayScape, students and teachers did a thorough search of the area to find and relocate any turtles.

Students have posed questions for more study, such as: Is a turtle’s burrow location correlated to where it hatched? Would burrow-mates then be hatch-mates? How long do these individuals survive? Do turtles that “go missing” for a few years ever return? [Yes.]  Is there—as some reptile experts have hypothesized—only one box turtle species to the west of the Appalachians?

Anticipating his eventual retirement, Jon is uncertain about the future of his turtle telemetry program. He hopes to pass the torch to a young teacher and to find funding to replace some of the aging equipment.

What Jon Souders is certain of is his influence on his students. If they never take another science course again, they have learned methodologies that make them better thinkers and have had those many hours of exploration in the wild. Some have chosen careers that relate back to their high-school experience. There’s a former student who now tracks California condors with the same technology. Another uses her GIS skills to monitor migrating whales in the Atlantic. One is a Loyola undergrad who has chosen to specialize in turtles. A young man is using his technology expertise while on assignment with the U.S. Air Force in Turkey. A youth pastor, once Jon’s student, discusses conservation practices with kids on field trips to, yes, the Smokies!

Where and when does the influence of an effective and innovative science teacher end? Perhaps it never does.