AP Environmental Science students at The Lovett School study the behaviors of box turtles. (Special/The Lovett School)

When a teacher at Buckhead’s The Lovett School first came up with the idea of having students experiment on box turtles, he broke into an almost uncrossed territory: allowing high schools to do long-term field research.

In 2006, AP Environmental Science teacher Jim Crowley wanted to expand his students’ experience with the world around them and started a box turtle experiment on campus. Sixteen years later, over 700 hundred students have participated in the project, collecting long-term data on the turtles’ features, behaviors and movements. 

“I love it because it’s a field study, so the students have to go out and be engaged in the outdoors,” said Crowley, who has taught at Lovett since 1990. “They’re doing that while also learning about the turtles and seeing deer and other things on campus.”

He said it helps students understand the school campus is a wildlife habitat.

“They get to see why they should protect those areas of campus that I think a lot of people see as not being used,” said Crowley. “It’s not a playing field. How else would you use it? What kind of classroom is that for the students?”  

First, Crowley would collect the turtles on his own at the start of the semester, and then the students would do independent research of box turtles. After that part of the project was over, they would then go out and find the turtles themselves. 

“My favorite part was definitely finding and meeting our box turtle,” said Caroline Colavito, a current member of Crowley’s class. “We were a little bit excited but also a little bit nervous. Our turtle’s name is Alcatraz. He didn’t get his name from nowhere. He’s kind of an escape artist and also good at hiding.”

The students take baseline measurements of the turtles. They then release the turtles back into their home environment, placing transmitters and other devices on them to track their movements and behaviors. This method of learning also allows the students to interact with and learn about the way human actions can affect the environment, Crowley said.

“We have baseball and softball fields, which used to be our turtles’ home base,” said Colavito. “A lot of turtles lived there, but when we built on top of it, that whole situation changed. We have this trail that they usually kind of hang around and the lacrosse fields that they usually stay in. It’s interesting to see how they adapted and changed from that area that they were so used to, to where they are now.”

The research is unique to the Lovett School, Crowley said. Very few high schools are doing long-term field research, making it a new way of learning. The students get to have hands-on experiences with the environment and life around them. 

“Really to me, it’s not just the field research. It’s how it applies to everything we talk about in environmental science,” said Crowley. “It goes back to the real world and that we have an impact on the real world and the real species other than ourselves out there. And by knowing one species, you appreciate other species at other levels, just by knowing that one at a level you never knew before.”

Khushi Niyyar

Khushi Niyyar is an intern for Reporter Newspapers. She's a senior at The Westminster Schools and an editor of the school's newspaper.