Back to Nature

Naturalist Ken Adams has made a career of working with students in a way that allows them to get ‘hands on’ with the environment

Naturalist Kenneth Adams sees more than an over-grown pond teeming with insects when he stands before a wetland.  He sees a classroom.  A man who learned to appreciate the natural world by always being a part of it, Adams cites his childhood as the compass that guided him to his current position as distinguished professor of natural sciences at SUNY Plattsburgh.  “A person’s achievements are always attributed, in part, to the direct and indirect influences of others,” says Adams, who continues to find new ways to keep his students interested in the world around them.

Adams, the oldest of five children, grew up on a dairy farm in Middlebury, Vermont.  “One of the burdens of poverty that farm parents must carry is the work demands they place on their children.  The first thing I did every morning, seven days per week, was help milk cows...before school and weekends,” says Adams, who adds “And afternoon chores were waiting for me after school.”  

“A person’s achievements are always attributed, in part, to the direct and indirect influences of others.”

On his family’s farm, Adams also took part in summer and fall harvests, spring planting and winter logging.  The year-round schedule kept him busy, but it also kept him outside, where the rigors of chores taught him “the value of work, perseverance and dedication to a goal.”

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Photo courtesy of Jeff Meyers

Ken Adams identifying Pinus banksiana (Jack Pine).

Despite his hectic schedule, Adams found time to join his local 4-H club.  “My involvement with 4-H was the pathway to broader horizons and exposure to the world beyond my family's farm,” says Adams.  “I owe so much to the adult 4-H club leaders whose names I've long forgotten. But their influence lives on!”

4-H brought Adams to far-away places such as Washington, D.C. and Chicago, but it was the animals on his family’s farm that inspired him to pursue an education beyond the one-room school house he attended as a child.  Aiming toward becoming a veterinarian, Adams began searching for a pre-med school that would offer him sufficient financial aid.  In 1966 he found what he was looking for at Heidelberg College.  “I left the mountains for the flat terrain of corn and soybeans out in Ohio,” says Adams.  “I guess that’s how much I wanted to be a vet at that time.”

Although Adams says “Biology departments were definitely geared toward training students so they could be accepted into med school,” he had two professors, one a botanist and the other a zoologist, who he considered “on the fringe” of the biology department.  The professors exposed Adams to biology as it relates to the natural world and introduced him to concepts of field biology that would later be categorized in the emerging field of ecology.  “When I took their courses I realized that this is the area of biology for me.”   

“Natural environments are more than a place for humans to have outdoor recreation.”

In 1969, Adams’ perception was shifted further away from becoming a veterinarian when he became a teacher’s assistant for a freshman introductory biology lab.  Adams embraced teaching, stating “It wasn’t deliberate but I got the idea, or at least the notion in the back of my mind, that maybe someday I’d like to be a teacher of field biology and ecology.”  Adams didn’t feel that high school was where he could be most effective, and began leaning toward the idea of becoming a college professor.

In the fall of 1969, Adams was forced to put his newfound aspirations on hold when he was drafted.  “I was opposed to the war, but I really didn’t have a choice,” he says.  He was granted a deferment until he graduated in May, 1970, at which time he enlisted in the Air force, where he was trained to do intelligence work.  Adams was stationed in a remote area of Thailand, near the Mekong River, from 1971 until 1972. 

“During that time, the Air force gave me this form called a ‘dream sheet’.  It’s where you would like to go when you are out of the war zone.”  For Adams, this was not a difficult decision, “Being from Vermont I had heard of the Plattsburgh Airforce Base.  Having been in Ohio for four years and then in the military, I had been away from home for quite awhile.  My younger brothers and sisters were growing up and I was feeling home sick, so Plattsburgh was my first choice on my dream sheet.”

Adams, itching to leave the war and the military, had his dream answered in August, 1972, when he arrived at the Plattsburgh Airforce base.  He heard about SUNY Plattsburgh and its strong biology department and began taking classes while he finished his remaining year with the military.  After being released from active duty, Adams applied to be a full time graduate student at SUNY Plattsburgh. 

“At the time there was a very young environmental science program at Plattsburgh State that was starting to collaborate with the Miner Institute.  I had the opportunity to teach field biology for the environmental science program at the Miner Institute when I was a graduate student,” says Adams.  “That was 1974.  It was a tremendous catalyst in my interest in teaching.  It was the first time I had the opportunity to teach subjects I really cared about, ecology and field biology, to students who really wanted to learn.”

Determined to become a professor, Adams completed his master’s degree in biology and obtained a PhD in field ecology from SUNY-ESF in Syracuse.  “I was there for three years, and never expected to come back to Plattsburgh.  I figured I would finish and get a job somewhere else,” says Adams.  “In 1981, a position became available in Plattsburgh.  I really enjoyed my time at Plattsburgh State, so I applied for the job and got accepted.  I came back to the mountains and stayed.”

Adams was excited to come back to Plattsburgh because of its “proximity to Miner Institute with its 8,000 acres, and the proximity to the Adirondacks.  I love the mountains,” he says, adding that his favorite mountain destinations include “The alpine meadows on Algonquin for the unusual plants that are up there and the vista.  I also love Lake Colden, and Avalanche Pass.  They are just amazing.”

Despite his love for hiking, Adams acknowledges a delicate balance between humans and the wilderness.  “Natural environments are more than a place for humans to have outdoor recreation,” he says.  It is a philosophy that lends itself to why Adams teaches ecology.  “By learning about other species of plants and animals, you get a stronger connection to your own natural environment, and that connection can sustain us all through troubled times.” 

"The world isn’t made just for us.”

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Photo courtesy of Tim Mihuc

Ken Adams with students in nature's classroom.

To help make the connection, Adams has focused his teaching career on getting his students outside to see nature up close.  “Ken does far more than just show up and teach classes.  He engages students in classes but he works with students on individual research projects.  He is clearly the number one contributing factor to student research that is published in our (SUNY Plattsburgh’s) e-journal,” says Tim Mihuc, head of the Lake Champlain Research Institute and a colleague of Adams’ since 1999.    

It seems that in an area inundated with jagged mountain tops, open meadows and roaring streams, Adams will never be at a loss for ways to instill awe into his students, yet sometimes the areas he chooses as teaching tools are not idyllic landscapes.  If availability allows, he also introduces students to the effects of wild fires, ice storms and agriculture on ecosystems by taking them to areas that have been affected by such events.  His reasoning, much like himself, is straightforward.  “I find heuristic value in having students go out and sample and test ecosystems after a disturbance,” says Adams.  “It really gets them thinking about what makes an ecosystem work because the difference is so dramatic.”

“Ken has what I call a quiet persistence.  He is very respectful of students, and he is also very demanding.  Ken is a natural born leader.  He can motivate students to work hard, and in many cases other people can’t,says Mihuc.  “He’s not just there to teach because he has to,” says Jen Rushford, a former student of Adams.  “It’s because he wants to be there.  When he talks, everybody listens.”  If people listen to Adams when he speaks, it is because he carries with him an enthusiasm for everything he talks about, yet his presentation is never overwhelming.  It is a manner that Rushford calls “Naturalist charisma,” a gentleman’s way of stating facts that is difficult to resist.

Throughout his career, Adams has strived to take teaching to a level that is equal to his passion for field ecology and biology.   “I think it important for people to not only appreciate the ecology of other species that they interact with in natural environments, but how to manage those habitats to maximize the biological potential as well as the culture potential for people, so that’s what I try to do.  Enhance peoples respect for other living organisms and learn how to better manage those systems,” says Adams, whose understanding of all things natural goes beyond the forest.  “Even if students don’t go on to become professional ecologists or natural resource managers, they’re still carrying that appreciation for other living things with everything they do, wherever they go.  People tend to cherish what they love and understand.  With understanding comes value, and with value comes protection.  The world isn’t made just for us.”



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