Sneed Prairie Field Trip Activities with Descriptions and Photographs
Children, teachers, and Austin College student field guides have fun and learn about healthy ecosystems during the field trip.
Species diversity activity
The species diversity activity teaches students to identify different plant and animal species, collect data, and observe diversity. Students divide into small teams and each team is given a hula hoop to place on the ground. They use hand lenses to observe and count as many different species that they can find within the hula hoop. They record their data onto a worksheet and discuss their results with the group.
Students simulate a grazing herd of bison to understand how free-roaming bison forage. They experience how the bison on the outside of the herd are exposed to predation, and the ones on the inside are safer but have fewer plants from which to choose.
Students help restore the prairie by planting native grass seeds. They put seeds into bare spots on the ground and stomp them in using their feet, simulating bison hooves.
Skulls, animal tracks, and fossil collection
Students observe and handle skulls of various prairie animals and try to identify the species. These include bison, deer, hog, raccoon, and tortoise. Students also find animal tracks on the walk and try to determine their species. Students observe and handle fossils of native animals.
Plant and animal species identification and observation
Students observe and identify plant and animal species of the prairie as we come across them during the walk. An example of an animal the students will observe is the harvester ant, whose primary source of food in their native habitat is the seeds of prairie plants.
The tour of the pavilion teaches students about energy-efficient buildings and the sustainable technology used to operate the building. Students observe and discuss how the building differs from conventional buildings and how it has less impact on the environment. The building has solar panels that generate electricity from sunlight and the building collects and filters rain water to use for drinking and for the restrooms.
Runoff demonstration experiment
The field guides demonstrate an experiment that contrasts what happens when rain falls on an overgrazed piece of land versus a healthy plot of native grasses. Water rains onto two 2 by 3 foot containers of plants, from which the water either runs off the surface into one collection jar, or percolates through the soil and roots, and exits into another collection jar.
Students discuss the different plant communities represented by the plants in the two contrasting containers and learn about native plants. The field guides demonstrate and explain the procedure of the experiment. While students are out in the field they learn more information that helps them predict how the water will flow in each container.
Runoff demo experiment: Graphic organizers
Each student completes a worksheet with a t-chart using environmental vocabulary words to contrast a healthy ecosystem and a damaged ecosystem.
Runoff demonstration experiment: Hypothesis
Students write their own hypothesis regarding the destination of the water that rains on each pan of plants. Using the worksheet, they note which container they think will contain the most run-off water and which will contain the most ground water.
Runoff demonstration experiment: Results
When students return to the experiment after the field trip of the prairie, they use their new knowledge to explain what happened in the experiment. They determine if their hypothesis was supported or not, and why.
Erosion and water
Students learn that the long roots of perennial plants help prevent erosion, the process by which material is worn away from the earth’s surface. When water cannot move into the soil fast enough it rushes off, which results in flash flooding. Erosion affects the quantity of drinking water that is obtained from reservoirs or aquifers. Restoring the prairie helps reduce flash flooding and mud in reservoirs, and sends more water to aquifers.
Grasses and grazing
Students learn that annual plants have a life cycle of only a year, but perennial plants, such as the native prairie grasses, live for many years and survive under difficult conditions such as drought. We discuss the perennial grasses’ root structure, water holding capacity, ability to hold soil, and ability to grow back after a fire. Students learn the names of four native grass species, Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, and Switchgrass. We use a 10-foot long, life-size photograph of a perennial grass’ long roots. Students also discuss the different grazing habits of free roaming bison and fenced cattle, and the effect of that difference on plant growth.
Overgrazing and roots
Students discuss the changes in vegetation from perennial grasses to pastures filled with thorny trees, poisonous weeds, and plants that cattle will not eat unless they are starving. Students learn that excessive grazing has affected vegetation because native grasses don’t grow well in areas with excessive grazing pressure.
Additional TEKS-related Field Trip Learning Opportunities
Field guides give students instructions for personal safety and explain how to protect the plants and animals they encounter from human harm; such as picking a plant or intentionally stepping on an insect.
Using the senses
At the start of the trip, students spread out, close their eyes, and stand quietly to feel more a part of their surroundings. Students use the senses of smell, touch, hearing, and sight to learn more about the prairie, and afterwards discuss their experiences.
The Blackland Prairie ecosystem
Through discussion and observation of a map, students learn that the Blackland Prairie is an endangered ecosystem of which less than 1% remains. The Texas Blackland Prairie ranges from San Antonio to the Red River, and is a part of the tallgrass prairie that stretches to Canada. Students help Austin College restore the prairie by planting native grass seeds.
History: 200 years ago
Students learn the history of the Blackland Prairie, discussing what it was like two hundred years ago. They learn to describe the plants, animals, and people who were here at that time. This includes information about Native Americans and bison that lived on the prairie.
Changes over the past 200 years
The animals, people, and land use on the prairie have changed dramatically during the last two hundred years. There are now cattle instead of bison, roads, buildings, trees, non-native plants, and settlers who have replaced the Native Americans. Students discuss how these changes have drastically altered the natural environment and some consequences of these changes.
History of Sneed Prairie
Students learn the history of the prairie; Clinton and Edith Sneed farmed this land before they gave it to the college. Students guess which plants were grown on the prairie; they include corn, oats, sorghum, and hay. The Sneed’s also raised dairy and beef cattle. Students observe the old dairy barn, which had one of the area’s first automated milk machines.
Students define and discuss the terms ecosystem, environment, conservation, and endangered species.
The techniques Austin College uses to restore the prairie are mowing, burning, and carefully managed cattle grazing. In the past, lightning and Native Americans started fires that burned until they reached a major natural barrier, such as a river. Now we carefully set fires to foster grass growth and suppress trees. We manage cattle to mimic grazing bison, and mow to simulate the relatively non-selective (thorough) grazing that was characteristic of large bison herds. We teach students an acronym, FRANCE, to help them remember why we restore the prairie.
(F) Less flash flooding
(R) Less mud in reservoirs
(A) Replenish groundwater in aquifers
(N) Conservation of native species
(C) Better food for cattle
(E) Less soil erosion
Map of the property
A map in the pavilion shows a bird’s eye view of the Sneed property. Fields are identified by the techniques we use to restore them, which are combinations of fire, cattle, and mowing. This map is different from other maps because west, rather than north, is at the top, so students must apply their knowledge of maps and use the symbols and key to understand the map and navigate their way through the prairie.
When students eat lunch in the pavilion, we discuss and distinguish the items that can and cannot be recycled, and help students place their waste into the appropriate bins.