Vehicles are jam-packed into the gravel lot and line the roads that wind into Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland. Kids and their parents trek through the mud on this warm, sunny Sunday, more like April than late February. What brings them here? Turtles and snakes and salamanders. Oh my!

This is the HERP Project’s free winter celebration for the public, “Animals that Slither, Slide, Run and Hide.” The HERP Project, short for Herpetology in Rural Places & Spaces, is funded through a $2.7 million National Science Foundation grant.

A diverse group of faculty from three universities — UNCG, Elon and Pembroke — teamed up to win the grant, which covers educational research, programs for elementary, middle and high school students, and grassroots conservation efforts for some cold-blooded, under-appreciated critters. The research team includes specialists in education, biology and history.

Lynn Sametz, a research scientist with UNCG’s Center for Youth, Family and Community Partnerships, says the response to the project has been heartening. About 75 volunteers worked the celebration; about 15 high school students spent the night at the camp to help set up.

“We have 100-plus partners,” Sametz says. “Most of them just come out and do it. They just come because it’s fun. The whole idea is to educate the public, and to help people appreciate their environment.”

And people aren’t the only mammals getting into the act. In one of the campground’s central buildings, John Rucker is talking about his dogs — turtle dogs.

Rucker has several dogs, mostly Boykin spaniels, who sniff out and retrieve box turtles. The dogs carry the turtles, unharmed, back to their master for measuring, weighing and marking. The turtles are released unscathed.

The Eastern box turtle, North Carolina’s state reptile, is considered a species of concern as its numbers dwindle. Many turtles suffer as “pets” and die from respiratory infections after they are relocated, so Rucker was reluctant to spread the word about his dogs until he found a way for them to help with conservation efforts.

“If you were a turtle,” he asks, “would you like to be kept in a glass box or terrarium for 30 years?”

Out on the patio, Heidi Carlone, a researcher with UNCG’s School of Education, takes photos as high-schoolers from Elon Academy, a four-week residential program taught by university-level educators, put on a puppet show for kids. The show is not only fun but teaches children about reptiles and amphibians.

“They are the experts now,” says Carlone, who is using HERP to study how students develop as scientists. “They are teaching the young kids, and acting as community experts. It’s really given them a sense of feeling competent and engaged, and of giving back.”

In addition to the Elon Academy program, the HERP Project sponsors two weeklong residential research programs for middle- and high-schoolers to learn about reptiles and amphibians. Those programs are centered at Camp Chestnut Ridge and Camp Rockfish in Parkton.

The residential programs are all about changing attitudes in young people, says Catherine Matthews, an education professor and the project’s principal investigator. “Kids come in and say, ‘I never thought I’d be holding a frog, or getting in a vernal pool or touching a snake.’ ”

By the end of their stay, they can identify some frogs and some venomous snakes. And they understand the important role reptiles and amphibians play in our ecosystem.

“Copperheads eat rodents,” Matthews says. “So it’s either rats or snakes.”

By Michelle Hines, University Relations

Photography by Chris English, University Relations