Environmental Education for the 21st Century - All About the Experiences
We always hear about new technology - the next iPhone or the hottest app to download, but what about the oldest form of appealing to our senses? Getting outside. Environmental issues = global issues, and it is important that we share information to educate others. One method of ensuring environmental lessons is through experiential education - it’s universal, and the Blue Ridge Outdoor Education Center (BROEC) provides that for students in Georgia and the surrounding areas.
Environmental/Outdoor education can be easily incorporated into core education, but experiential learning opportunities allow room for growth and understanding in a new way besides sitting in a classroom. BROEC provides experiential education opportunities for students ranging in grades 3-10. Most of the activities are science-based, like forest ecology (how forests grow, decline, what is in the forest, how does the forest rejuvenate itself, etc.), aquatic ecology (studying the health of a creek and the habitats in that creek), animal ecology (studying reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds using live and mounted animals in the nature center), and the relationship of predator and prey and why both are necessary for a healthy ecosystem. BROEC also has math/physics-based classes where students build rope bridges or geo-domes to help students learn tactile skills (knots, hitches, etc.) and help explain why these structures are beneficial. They even provide several cultural classes about the Cherokee and early southern Appalachian settlers, both of whose populations inhabited large areas around BREOC in its early years. Adventure-based classes such as a three-mile round trip hike to see/play in a waterfall, a high ropes course with a zip line along with a low ropes course to help students learn to work with one another, provide social skills lessons and appreciation for the natural world. BROEC Director Blake Burks explained, “Through our work, we get to share the natural beauty and wonder of our 468-acre property where we explore ridge lines and creek beds all within a short hiking distance apart.”
More and more schools are seeking environmental education sites such as Blue Ridge. Not all students can learn from a book or a lecture. Learning about stream habitats while you are wading in that stream, learning about decomposition by dissecting a dead tree, is truly immersive. When asking students before visiting an environmental education center how they felt about nature versus asking them after their visit, there is a significant and positive difference in their connection to nature and feelings towards it. Children [and teachers] are more aware and connected, and that is the first step.
Experiential education is universal to students with different learning styles. We often see the students that struggle in traditional classrooms, flourish in an outdoor classroom where they can get involved in the subject matter with action and hands-on opportunities. Blake said, “I love my job! I love the impact we have on students that usually do not get the opportunities that we provide. I love the staff that I work with, specifically seeing their passion for the natural world come out and seeing them grow as instructors and as people.”
That impact is why environmental education is so pertinent to our education system. There are large populations that live in cities that do not see issues with forests being cut down because it is not a direct or immediate impact on their lives. The reverse of that is large populations of urban areas that do not think that smog is a big deal because their air and vision is not affected; Doing more to discuss and educate the public on these issues is the first step to making changes. Environmental issues can be very polarizing and political. BROEC works hard to deliver education and information in the most neutral way possible. This means that the lessons they teach are focused on facts that can be backed up by research and science. They focus on what is universally known and proven in ecosystems.
Project Learning Tree is one of many programs that environmental education centers use in their curriculum. Some of the benefits that coincide with environmental and experiential learning are: imagination and enthusiasm are enhanced, critical and creative thinking skills heightened, tolerance and understanding of peers is supported, state and national learning standards are met for multiple subjects, fear of the outdoors and unknown is hindered, healthy lifestyle is encouraged, a sense of community is strengthened, and there is a sense of empowerment that comes with knowledge and the ability to care for your planet (Susan Toth, Project Learning Tree).
“Part of my goal when starting in the outdoor industry was to have a positive impact on at least one student from each group, to spark an interest in an outdoor activity or subject. There are moments when teaching where you can see a student’s eyes light up because they truly understand the subject material and create more interest so the student will continue to learn,” Blake said. This type of education is extremely important because it provides students of all backgrounds opportunities they may not otherwise have, creating a lasting memory.