story by Greg Alexander | photos provided by EO Wilson Biophilia Center
A hidden gem of learning, wildlife, water, and exploration is close by that is helping to educate elementary school students about the importance of biodiversity, sustainability, conservation, preservation, and restoration of our ecosystems. The E.O. Wilson Biophlia Center is located just a short distance across the Choctawhatchee Bay off of Hwy 331 at 4956 State Highway 20 East in Freeport.
Walton County conservationist and resident, M.C. Davis on his 50,000 acre conservation land name Nokuse Plantation, developed the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center in 2009. The Center is named after and dedicated to world renowned scientist Dr. Edward O. Wilson, who has made his life-long mission to educate the public about the importance of conserving the world’s biodiversity. Dr. Wilson developed the term “biophilia” which literally means “the love of all living things”.
Students who visit the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center learn about the natural environment through interpretive exhibits as well as an extensive trail system through natural areas on Nokuse Plantation. The Center offers programs with curriculum that coincides with Florida’s education standards. While promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, students are provided opportunities for inquiry, investigation and innovation by gaining a better understanding and knowledge of their surroundings, which is especially important in our area with so many diverse natural wonders. They visit for 2-day or 4-day programs with over 25 lessons that concentrate on the importance of the longleaf pine ecosystem which include aspects of the land, water, plant life, and native forest animals.
The Walton County School District considers this facility to be an extension of their classroom as the Center acts as their science education project-based learning facility, the place where schooling becomes applicable. Each year, the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center educates 5,200 students in a 5-county area and averages more than 120 students every school day. The Biophilia Center is also open on select days to the general public, providing a variety of environmental presentations. There are so many ways to help the Biophilia Center. They offer opportunities to “Adopt an Animal,” sponsor an event, become a member, or donate to help further their mission.
There are many volunteer opportunities available. Visit them at www.eowilsoncenter.orgfor more details.
Interview with Paul Arthur, Director
EO Wilson Biophilia Center
How long have you been involved with the Biophilia Center?
I just, excitingly, celebrated my 10-year anniversary here. I first learned of the Biophilia Center when my son visited when he was in the 4thgrade. I was lucky enough to be a chaperone. During that visit, I was enjoying my time so much and interacting with the kids, staff, and animals, the director at that time offered me a part-time job on the spot. Nature, students/kids, animals, and a great team – I was in! Throughout my 10 years I have been promoted several times and now I serve as the president of the board, and director of the Biophilia Center.
What is the mission of the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center?
To educate students and visitors on the importance of biodiversity, to promote sustainability, and to encourage conservation, preservation and restoration of ecosystems.
What diverse services and activities go on at the Biophilia Center?
We offer FREEenvironmental education to Walton, Bay, Okaloosa, Holmes, and Washington counties for 4thand 7thgrades. We have over 1200 pages of curriculum used by teachers and students pre-visit, while they are visiting the Biophilia Center and post-visit in their classroom. With over 50 wildlife animal ambassadors and a passionate team, the Biophilia Center is the ultimate hands-on environmental education facility.
We also started Camp Longleaf in 2019 — an interactive campsite consisting of 6 cabins (58 total beds), a dining hall, commercial kitchen, a 2000 square foot campfire hexagon platform with a 6-foot firepit, an activities arena, swing sets, bouncy houses, and more. Camp Longleaf is home to summer camps, our Naturalists Outdoors program, weekend rentals, and corporate outings. The Naturalists Outdoors program is offered to elementary, middle, and high schools all over the country, including our local school districts, to come visit during the school year and participate in all that the Biophilia Center has to offer while staying at Camp Longleaf. Details can be found at www.camplongleaf-fl.organd www.naturalistsoutdoors.org. During the summers we also provide day-camp opportunities for younger children along with public hours and group rates for program participation during the week. These programs take place at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, which offers an exhibit hall, trails, classrooms, a theater, birds-of-prey observation enclosures, and more.
How have you pivoted this year with COVID affecting our lives and activities?
We were humming along with a packed schedule for 2020, which included summer camps, public and children’s group bookings, and the anticipation of our largest pre-scheduled local school groups for the 2020/2021 school year. Our Naturalists Outdoors program had schools scheduled from California, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and many locations around Florida including our local districts. All which were halted in March. Not utilizing the Biophilia Center and Camp Longleaf to its fullest has definitely been hard to accept, but we have been able to take advantage of this “down time” in many different facets around the Center.
Maintenance and upgrades have been addresses and accomplished. This includes physical improvements to facilities and grounds, in-depth animal training, curriculum updates, program enhancements, and much more. The team has embraced the need to prepare and improve our Center for the anticipation of students coming back.
We have integrated an online aspect to connect with our local school districts through Zoom meetings. Nothing can compare to hands-on project-based learning that the Biophilia Center has to offer, but our connection with students has been effective. They have the opportunity to see our animal ambassadors, interact with our team, and participate in our programs as best as possible. The area’s teachers are truly the unsung heroes and we want to offer an escape to their “normal” classroom daily routine.
How is the organization funded?
We rely on donations from corporate and individual gifts as well as foundation grants. We also raise money through our special events and through activities at Camp Longleaf and summer programs.
What is the most rewarding part of your involvement with the organization?
Knowing that I work with an organization that was put in place to better our community, environment, and overall health of our local school districts is humbling. Not many people get to say they work with students, teachers, animals, nature and the best team in the business. How lucky am I?
Are there any upcoming events?
We are planning on rolling out a multi-faceted initiative called “Journey Back to Nature” virtual 5k walk/run, which will focus on the health of our environment and the health of the community. This innovative program will be different from other virtual walks. Participants will register and be rewarded for their efforts as they virtually move their avatar down the path.