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Students Visit West Virginia University Arboretum

By Staff | Jun 7, 2017

Joe Griffith, left, and TCHS graduate Zach Fowler pose for a photo at the WVU Arboretum

When Zach Fowler, Class of 1997 at Tyler Consolidated High School, was a student in Mr. Joe Griffith’s Advanced Biology class and learned his first Latin names for a tree, he never dreamed that it would one day lead to his being selected as the Director of the Core Arboretum, located next to the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, W.Va. He is now Doctor Zach Fowler, and he recently hosted a visit to the Arboretum by some of Mr. Griffith’s biology students, where they looked at various trees and the many ephemeral spring wildflowers in bloom at the time.

“It was truly a great visit and a wonderful nature walk along the Arboretum pathways,” said Griffith. “I am thrilled that one of my former students-one of the very top students I have ever had-is now in charge of the Core Arboretum! He has amassed a vast wealth of knowledge of biology and nature, and he has a great vision for how the site can be used for environmental learning in the future.”

The Core Arboretum was established in 1948, and consists of 91 acres of wooded hillside extending from a small parking area adjacent to the WVU Coliseum down to the Monongahela River.

Eighteen students in Griffith’s Biology II and WVU College Biology classes traveled to Morgantown in late April, a time when the tree leaves are beginning to appear, and the ephemeral spring wildflowers are in great abundance on the hillside.

“Ephemeral means fleeting or short-lived,” explained Dr. Fowler to the group of students. “There is a steady progression of various wildflowers that bloom for a week or two in April and May, and then are replaced by the next wave of a different kind of wildflower. It is fascinating to walk the pathways of the Arboretum from week to week in the spring to see the magnificent changes in Nature!”

The TCHS students on the trip have all studied a unit on trees-dendrology-with Mr. Griffith, just as Zach did twenty years ago, so they are aware of the genus and species names of many trees, too. “That made the trip very interesting for them when Zach would ask about the scientific name for a tree, and many of the students were able to respond with the Latin name,” said Griffith. “It was a bonus that they also got to learn some wildflower common names, such as Bloodroot, Larkspur, Golden Ragwort, Mayapple, Trillium, Wild Ginger, and even Garlic Mustard, which is an invasive weed that Zach and many volunteers spend hours each spring trying to eradicate.”

Fowler graduated as the valedictorian of the TCHS Class of 1997, and looking back, he is very pleased with his Tyler County roots: “I feel like I got a great education at TCHS. I still have yet to meet someone who had a better high school education than I had, and I have met many people whose parents spent lots of money to put them through high school. The diversity of science classes that I had as a student was spectacular, and it certainly gave me an edge through the first couple years of college.”

After high school, his educational pathway led him to WV Wesleyan College, where he earned Bachelor’s Degrees in Biology and Physics. Following several years of service with AmeriCorps and Vista, he went to WVU, where he earned his Ph.D. in Biology, specializing in Forest Ecology.

Several years ago, the former Arboretum Director retired, and Zach decided to apply for the position. “The position opened up soon after I was finished with my Ph.D., and I thought that I was qualified and would love the job,” Fowler said. “I applied, interviewed, and got the position!”

But Fowler is the lone staff member at the Arboretum, and he also teaches two university classes: Plant Ecology and Flora of WV. So he has to seek volunteer help for many of the tasks associated with the site. “Many of the challenges stem from the fact that I do not have enough of a support and maintenance staff here at the Arboretum, so I either coordinate volunteers to get all of the maintenance work done, or I do it myself. It is certainly a challenge to develop programming and work to better integrate the Arboretum into the University and the community, while at the same time seeing to regular maintenance. There is nothing wrong with challenges, though, as long as there are resources to leverage to overcome them!”

He enjoyed hosting students and his former high school biology teacher. “It was wonderful to see a group of students from TCHS. It certainly made me think back to my time as a high school student! I still remember the lessons that I saw Mr. Griffith teaching his students that day from when he taught me 20 years ago!”

To the students on the field trip, Zach gave them encouragement for their college years ahead: “Do not give up! Going to college is extremely important, and you probably cannot even imagine the opportunities that you can develop. Even if you do not end up using your degree in your career, you will be challenged in important ways, and you can gain valuable connections, experiences, and a better understanding of how the world works.”

Dr. Fowler has also been very involved with The Brooks Bird Club, based in Wheeling, WV, ever since his high school days. “College was great and very important for learning the science behind nature, but much of my education as a WV naturalist came from my experience with the Brooks Bird Club. Anyone who is interested in a career based on nature or nature education should check online for the Brooks Bird Club Summer Foray. It happens every summer, scholarships are available for students, and it is the best week of nature education that you can get anywhere!”

Griffith complimented his former student on his work with the Arboretum: “I think that WVU made a very wise choice in selecting Zach Fowler as the new director. He has a passion for learning about nature that has impressed me from the first day he walked into my classroom!”

Echoing those sentiments was TCHS Librarian, Tracy Summers, who also chaperoned the trip. “I’m so glad that I was able to visit the WVU Arboretum with Mr. Griffith’s students. Seeing the wide variety of Spring wildflowers in bloom was a wonderful experience, especially since our guide was Dr. Zach Fowler, a Tyler Consolidated High School graduate. I highly recommend anyone visiting the Morgantown area to make a visit to the Arboretum.”

Fowler has great hopes for the Arboretum during his tenure. “I have big dreams! I would like to see the Arboretum work toward its full potential, with a visitor’s center with classroom, lab, and maintenance space and a full staff. There is so much opportunity to connect University students, local school groups, and local citizens with nature!

The Arboretum is open year-round, and is free to visit and walk the trails. When he is not teaching at the University, Dr. Fowler can often be found working on pathways, removing invasive weeds, or doing other things to improve and promote the Arboretum. “I really love connecting people to nature. It is a wonderful experience to direct a facility with the goal of getting more people and even a university connected to nature. I feel very lucky to be the Director of the Core Arboretum, and I invite everyone to come and visit.”

Additional information on events at the arboretum can be found at the online website, easily accessed by searching for “WVU Core Arboretum.”