By Paige Campbell
The school day has officially ended at Castlewood High School. But at the Wetlands Estonoa Outdoor Learning Center four miles away in St. Paul, Va., it’s hard to tell. Seventeen Castlewood students are still engrossed in their water testing tools and trail maintenance equipment.
“Wrap it up, guys,” teacher Terry Vencil calls out across the water. “We’ve got to get the athletes back to school.”
This is school for Vencil’s environmental science students, who leave campus for each day’s final period to carpool to Estonoa, maintain the site, test the water, and correspond with GLOBE, a national program that supports student-collected data and research worldwide. There is no lecture, but Vencil is constantly teaching. She points out turtle egg shells, troubleshoots equipment problems, and brainstorms reasons for variations in water temperature. She and the students are fully engaged with the site and with each other.
According to Vencil, the site was once a wet cornfield, dammed-up a century ago. “By 1999, you couldn’t even walk around here,” she says. “So a group of my students got permission to clean it up.” The project quickly evolved into a student-led environmental education center for studying and protecting the site’s distinctive wetlands ecosystem. Students oversaw all restoration, fundraising, and even the interior design for the new building.
Back then, Vencil taught at St. Paul High School, a short walk across the parking lot. When that school closed two years ago, most Estonoa students enrolled at Castlewood. So Vencil transferred there too, determined to keep the project alive despite of the new commute.
The drive cuts into class time, but even those four snaking miles through dense patches of forest and long-nurtured pastureland remind students of what Vencil emphasizes every day: Appalachia is a precious and resource-rich place worth studying.
The Estonoa project is remarkable, in every sense of the word. Nationwide, teachers bound by high-stakes tests and prescriptive state benchmarks must often plow through curricula too packed to build in much time for in-depth science instruction, let alone hands-on learning in the natural world. A 2011 survey by the National Science Teachers Association found that 44 percent of elementary school teachers devoted fewer instructional minutes to science than they had the previous year, with 26 percent reporting less than 20 minutes each day. Many cited the huge demands of regimented state assessment policies.
In Appalachia, that sacrifice seems a particular shame. Millions of acres of national forestland, unparalleled biodiversity, and the geological intricacies of some of the planet’s oldest mountains just might provide the ideal backdrop for comprehensive environmental education. Making the most of that backdrop with little time and few resources takes innovation and community buy-in. But Estonoa is one small place that does it.
Over the years, team members have reintroduced native flora, created a vegetative green roof on the building, constructed a three-quarter mile trail, hosted visiting groups, spoken at international conferences, and won dozens of academic awards.
To senior Andrew Jessee, what Estonoa really means is a chance to authentically experience — and deeply grasp — the subject matter. “I don’t learn well in a classroom,” he says. “I learn with my hands.”
Just outside Chattanooga, students at Ivy Academy are learning with their hands, too. This four-year-old charter school holds nearly all classes outdoors, nearly every day. “We’ll be in [indoor] class maybe ten minutes to talk about what we’re going to do,” senior Corey Purvis says. “Then we go outside and do it.”
Senior Kayla Carter offers an example. “Today we got a topographic map of the lot our school is on, and the ridge behind us and the creek,” she says. “Then we went out to the creek and figured out what our point of elevation was, how far we’d have to walk to get up the ridge, and what our point of elevation would be once we got there.”
“You really couldn’t do that in a traditional classroom,” she adds.
That’s the idea, says school director Angie Markum: to give opportunities for hands-on learning and to focus that learning on the natural world.
Students run a school garden, monitor tree growth and water quality for the GLOBE student-collected data project, line abandoned coal mines with limestone to slow hazardous runoff, and analyze non-native species compromising the Tennessee River system.
Markum is committed to the idea that intensive environmental education benefits the community. “We’ve got to educate people about our environment,” she says. “They don’t respect and value what they don’t understand.”
It also benefits students themselves. “Before I taught here, I was at a school where students came to school in the dark, spent the day in rooms with frosted windows, and sometimes in the winter went home after dusk,” Markum says. “These kids basically never saw the light of day.”
Such conditions are disgraceful, Ivy Academy founders believed. Students needed an alternative.
Of course, not every community can support an outdoor school, and not every student gets an alternative. So how can students experience vibrant environmental education in more traditional settings? Jim Rye and Rick Landenberger, education faculty at West Virginia University, offer some unique possibilities at a summer watershed dynamics institute for secondary science teachers.
Participants meet for one week at WVU during the summer, and continue to correspond through the fall. They practice different water quality assessments and learn to use GLOBE as well as Geographic Information Systems, a network of technically precise maps often used to analyze natural features like waterways.
When she enrolled in the institute in 2011, Wildwood Middle School teacher Carolyn Thomas had already developed a lesson involving brook trout, which thrived long ago in nearby Jefferson County streams. Centuries of agriculture and diminishing shade have gradually robbed the trout of the cool, clean conditions it requires, so when Thomas’ students raise brook trout eggs in the classroom, they ultimately must release the hatchlings across the state line in a part of Virginia where the species fares better.
The project has always been a hit. But Rye and Landenberger’s course gave Thomas the resources to expand the scope of her lesson by framing it around a critical question: could brook trout ever be reintroduced to Jefferson County waters?
“We visit streams, assess water quality, and consider human needs in the community,” Thomas explains. “And we use my favorite analogy: a stream without a riparian buffer is like a face without eyebrows.” Students discuss why a riparian buffer, or vegetative boundary zone, protects streams the way an eyebrow protects an eye, and what humans might do to recreate them.
“My goal is to engage them with their surroundings,” Thomas says. “And make them realize that science is not just in textbooks.
In the western hills of North and South Carolina, the Foothills Equestrian and Nature Center offers another strategy to bring science education from the textbook to the senses. FENCE’s education team provides instruction through field trips and in-class settings for eight schools across the region; hands-on lessons range from exploring weather patterns to dissecting owl pellets, and each corresponds with state standards.
Time constraints and expensive materials can rule out such activities for many classroom teachers, the program’s AmeriCorps Nature Education Assistant Kristy Burja says. “So we bring our own supplies, and it’s free to the school. We’re able to help teachers meet some ‘Essential Standards’ in a way that’s fun and different for the kids.”
“FENCE educational programming has become an essential part of our science curriculum,” says Denise Corcoran, who teaches at Tryon Elementary in Polk County. Especially popular are field trips to FENCE’s nature center. “[Fifth-graders] are able to hike, investigate and explore the outdoors in all the seasons,” says Corcoran. “And very often, [they] see things in nature that most people never see.”
Learning Landscapes, the environmental-education arm of Appalachian Sustainable Development in Washington County, Va., doesn’t have a facility for students to visit. What it does have is Denise Peterson, who spends her time helping schools create outdoor classrooms of their own.
Peterson leads many projects across Washington County and the city of Bristol. At one elementary school, students are restoring long-neglected gardens, studying pollinators and planting an “ABC” garden with crops representing every letter of the alphabet. One group of middle school students recently got their hands dirty harvesting their gardens of red, white and blue potatoes; at another middle school, students are constructing raised beds for a salad garden.
Learning Landscapes also contributes to a new Abingdon High School program that allows special-needs students to stay enrolled until age 22 and focus on vocational skills. The program’s culinary courses will soon feature harvests from an on-site Learning Landscapes vegetable garden.
Meanwhile, environmental science students have designed a nature trail connecting Abingdon High School grounds to the town’s central sidewalk system. “[Students] will flag the trail to mark the route, take GPS points, make an official map with those points, and then build it,” Peterson says. The trail will eventually include learning stations for identifying ecological habitats, tracking soil conditions and temperature, and testing water from a new footbridge.
For this type of project, Peterson says, continuity is the challenge. “A teacher or a principal or a parent can have a great idea and establish something, but if they move, it often fails,” she says. “An outside source [such as Learning Landscapes] can bring the energy to keep it going.”
Like all creators of innovative curricula, Peterson has learned just how crucial that energy is. When it falls into place, the results are unmatched: students fully immersed in their picturesque and profound Appalachian landscape — and fully engaged in understanding it.