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Columbia Connections: Sally Salamander Project Creates Hands-On Experience in Urban Planning, Science, Art, Writing, Technology, and More

Monday, September 25, 2017

Write what you know. That’s always one of the first pieces of advice given to creative writers. And it’s why Heathwood’s Upper School creative writing students recently began their day by closely studying a pair of salamanders—the kind of hands-on learning experience more typically found in a science class.

When the creative writing students were assigned to write a children’s book about Sally Salamander, the namesake of downtown Columbia’s Sally Salamander walking tour, they realized one of their first steps would need to be learning a lot more about what Sally’s experience as a salamander would actually be like.

Thanks to Riverbanks Zoo’s Jessica Lichty and salamanders Chester and Jasper, the students now know a lot more about how to bring Sally authentically to life. Ms. Lichty’s visit to campus with Chester, a spotted salamander, and Jasper, a marbled salamander, on September 25, allowed the class not only to observe salamanders in action but also to explore everything from their life cycles to their feeding and sleeping habits to their preferred habitats.

Both Chester and Jasper are types of salamander that are native to South Carolina. Spotted Salamanders are, in fact, the state amphibian. Sally Salamander, who was originally created by the Leadership Columbia Class of 2009 as a mascot for a downtown walking tour, is also a spotted salamander. Her status as an embodiment of the state amphibian means that representing her accurately really matters. So the creative writing students spent a good deal of time closely observing Chester and Jasper, photographing them, and asking Ms. Lichty lots of questions about them.

The book the class is producing will first be available at the launch of the newly expanded and enhanced Sally Salamander walking tour in November. Heathwood students also played a significant role in those upgrades. In the spring of 2017, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s office invited a Heathwood state and local government class to create a proposal for revitalizing the walking tour. After several months of research and planning, the students presented their proposal, which included 10 new Sally Salamander sites and a marketing plan to raise the tour’s visibility, to the mayor, who was impressed enough to have them present again to Columbia City Council, which both accepted and funded their recommendations.

Heathwood students are playing a lead role in the launch of the new tour on multiple fronts. In addition to the book project, Upper School computer science students are developing an app that will help guide visitors through the tour and provide more detailed information about each stop along the way. Art students Briana Stanley and Lexie Colwell are creating the character of Sally. And students in Heathwood’s new urban planning course are helping to get ten new tour stops in place, to market the tour, and to coordinate the November launch party.

Both the Sally Salamander project as a whole and Chester and Jasper’s visit to campus came about through Heathwood’s Columbia Connections program, which creates opportunities hands-on learning by connecting students with Columbia’s academic, cultural, scientific, non-profit, and business communities. By working with diverse members of the community, and exploring a range of issues, challenges, and opportunities using different tools and resources, students gain a richer, more in-depth understanding of how the skills and knowledge they acquire in the classroom translate into real-world action.

In addition to the time they spent with Chester and Jasper, the creative writing students recently took a trip to Main Street to tour the Sally Salamander sites they’ll be writing about. They’ve decided that Sally, who, like all salamanders, can inhabit both water and land, will live in the fountain outside the Columbia Museum of Art. They’ve done their homework: they know who Sally is, and what her experience is like.

Now it’s time to start telling her story.