“I love learning and want to go into biology,” said Adeline Pratt, a rising junior at John Handley High School in Winchester. “My experience here has shown me how scientists work, and what it’s like to work in a lab.”
Pratt is interning this summer at the University of Virginia’s Blandy Experimental Farm, a research, education and public outreach facility in the upper Shenandoah Valley’s Clarke County that also includes the State Arboretum of Virginia. Pratt is helping UVA graduate student Kathryn LeCroy on a bee population study, and has spent her summer days counting and cataloging thousands of bee specimens.
That study is one of several being conducted at the facility to better understand the interactions between plants and insects and how populations of important pollinators may be declining or changing.
“Our great strength at Blandy is our merging of education and research,” said David Carr, a UVA professor of environmental sciences and the director of Blandy Experimental Farm. “Each year, thousands of school students visit and learn at our facility, as well as more than 150,000 members of the general public. We’ve really got a gem as a learning place here.”
Blandy’s staff includes five full-time faculty members – three research professors, including Carr, and two public outreach leaders who run active K-12 programs with Virginia schools – and 21 staff and support personnel associated with several education programs and administrative functions at Blandy and the State Arboretum.
The K-12 programs are centered around the state’s Standards of Learning, and are intended to get students actively involved in experiencing and learning about the natural world.
“Our school programs meet well-defined SOL needs across the state,” Carr said. “When students come here they don’t just get a tour – they get to do hands-on science. We challenge them to solve problems on their own, to obtain answers through experimentation and reasoning.”
As an example, students learn about sustainable environments and the effects of human development on watersheds. They then get to design, in theory, a building for Blandy Farm that would have minimal negative effect on the nearby Shenandoah River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.
About 7,000 Virginia students visit Blandy each year for experiential science challenges. Blandy also operates a summer day camp program focused on natural history. And the staff and graduate students run evening events for the public, including a very popular firefly festival held each June.
“Our goal with these programs is to get young people excited about science early so they can pursue it as a career, or understand and value the natural world and our place within it,” Carr said.
As Blandy’s name implies, the “farm” also is very much an active experimental site, geared to helping researchers gain insights to ecosystems, and how nature balances itself, and how humans affect that balance.
Operated by UVA’s Department of Environmental Sciences, the facility serves as a pipeline for developing new scientists through its National Science Foundation-funded program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates – or REU – which each summer brings 10 undergraduate students from universities around the nation to conduct independent research under the mentorship of UVA professors and visiting professors, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The program allows students to live the life of active scientists by taking up residence at Blandy through the summer. At any given time during the summer, about 30 people reside at Blandy, Carr said.
At the end of the summer, the undergraduates present their research to the Blandy summer faculty, similar to the way graduate students defend dissertations. Some of the students’ findings are eventually accepted into publication by scientific journals. The experience is so invigorating for the students, Carr said, that they become inspired to pursue academic careers.
“The REU program is a great conduit for interested and talented undergraduates to realize their potential for graduate school,” he said. “It’s really a life-changing experience for them, and I’m very proud of what we’re accomplishing with the program.”
Blandy’s facilities include dormitories and guesthouses for visiting students and researchers, laboratories, a conference room, library, kitchen and dining room, learning center, an amphitheater, pavilions, a picnic area, and a new 2,000-square-foot greenhouse.
The State Arboretum, which is part of the property, is 172 acres and open to the public year-round. It includes walking trails through fields and forest, as well as a driving loop road.
“It’s a great place to work and learn,” Carr said.