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WCU Stories

Highlands Biological Station reflects, continues adaptive success with programs

By Geoff Cantrell

Patrick Brannon

Patrick Brannon

In a typical school year, Highlands Biological Station serves nearly 10,000 students through more than 250 programs, for 50-plus schools across the mountain region. 

This was not a typical school year. 

With “stay home, stay safe” orders in place and even the great outdoors temporarily shut down during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Western Carolina University’s 23-acre research and learning facility remained at work to meet the conservation and educational needs of the community.

Now in its 93rd year, the Highlands Biological Station includes the Highlands Nature Center; the William Chambers Coker Laboratory and other teaching labs, classrooms and dormitories; and the Highlands Botanical Garden, which features a network of public-accessible trails and boardwalks.

“These are trying times. Canceling programs and closing doors is a bitter disappointment, but not unexpected given the uncertainties we’ve all faced,” said Jim Costa, the station’s executive director and professor of evolutionary biology at WCU. “But one lesson from this unprecedented ssaid ituation is just how adaptable and creative humans are, and how we rise to the occasion.”

Jim Costa

Jim Costa

An example of that adaptation was seen in how the staff found ways to fill the void created by the suspension of workshops, classes and field trips. In the spring, outreach education specialist Patrick Brannon receives requests for programs on similar topics, such as wildflowers, frogs, birds, emerging insects and other seasonally related items.

“During this time, many teachers are struggling to provide activities for their students at home,” Patrick Brannon, education specialist at the biological station. “Since I cannot visit them in person, I am, like many others, trying to continue to ‘visit’ their classrooms via the internet. So, I am creating weekly ‘Science Short Shows,’ which I send to those teachers, but also make available to the public at large, including other teachers and home school groups.” Using the YouTube format, Brannon also produced at-home video versions of some of his programs for elementary and middle school students, beginning with segments on frogs and snakes.

Brannon and staff have had requests from as far away as Raleigh and are continuing to provide virtual programs through 2021.

Paige Engelbrektsson, nature center education specialist for the station’s nonprofit organization, the Highlands Biological Foundation, has been sharing virtual tours of what is currently blooming in the botanical garden and on the grounds. “No matter what else is happening in our world at the moment, seasonal changes and beauty still occur in our mountains that are worth sharing,” Engelbrektsson said. “Being able to lead nature tours and allow visitors to experience that through technology is a wonderful opportunity that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, and it’s important we do what we can to help students stay in touch with the outdoors and encourage at-home learning.”

Along with Winter Gary, communications and events coordinator for the foundation, Engelbrektsson posted ideas for daily fun and learning activities for children on the station’s Facebook page as part of a “Nearby Nature” series.

“Teachers have been extremely appreciative of these resources, which maintain a sense of normality in their lesson planning. These lessons are even more relevant when our students are outside exploring their backyards,” said Jennifer Love, the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) coordinator for Macon County Schools. “Nothing can replace the experience of walking through the garden, seeing the animals at the nature center or having a guest scientist visit your classroom. But the schools certainly appreciate everyone who is going above and beyond to make this experience as normal and meaningful as possible.”

The virtual lessons model hands-on activities and nature observation, with a focus on topics that not only tie into the North Carolina Standard Course of Study but are accessible to almost anyone when they walk out their door, Love said.

The station also was able to host researchers during the summer, including undergraduate students and recent graduates who were scrambling to find internship opportunities after their summer plans were canceled because of the pandemic. Four volunteer research interns from four different universities worked on projects including bird banding, sorting aquatic insects under a dissecting scope and measuring trees as a part of a vegetation survey. In all, the students volunteered more than 580 hours during the summer and fall.

“I’m proud of the Highlands Biological Station staff — I know all this can be demoralizing, but I'm so appreciative of their resilience and determination to keep our momentum going,” said Costa. “I know it’s making a difference to the station, WCU and the broader community.”

Information on program offerings, including correlations to state curriculum, are available at To schedule a program, contact the outreach office at 828-526-4123 or

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