Eric Sink, a teacher at Summit Charter School in Cashiers, N.C., looks forward to loading his fifth-graders up on a bus every year and heading into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the woods become the classroom and a park ranger takes over as teacher for the day. Sink wants his students to realize that where they live is special.
“Why do we study about the rainforest in South America when we have one right here in the Southern Appalachians?” Sink questioned.
The Parks as Classrooms fieldtrip for fifth-graders focuses on air quality at Clingmans Dome, where students visit a monitoring station that tests high-elevation ozone.
“We start with several lessons prior to even going, like what creates the pollution and what can we do to reduce the pollution,” Sink said. “They think a lot about things they can actually do, like the conservation of electricity.”
Since most of the pollution is from coal-fired power plants, they begin to think, “‘If I turn off my lights, I conserve electricity and that’s less coal that has to be burned,’” Sink said. Students also think about driving cars that use less gas, or even riding a bike or walking.
Once in the park, the students turn into scientists, conducting their own experiments to measure the effects of air pollution. They do pH tests of the soil to detect acid rain. They measure wind speed and talk about how it carries the pollution into the mountains.
Sink loves to see his students developing hypotheses, collecting data and performing studies.
“It really gets them to think more about it. We always do better when we are there than learning inside the classroom,” Sink said. “I think the great thing about it is they get that firsthand experimental learning.”
The fieldtrips are tailored for each grade level. Each is synced with the curriculum for that grade — even for kindergarten.
The state curriculum for kindergartners includes learning about animals and how they interact with their environment. A fieldtrip to the Oconaluftee River in the Smokies provides the perfect opportunity.
“We saw squirrels scurrying around gathering nuts. We saw groundhogs popping their heads up in the field. There is lots we are observing and watching in terms of animals,” said Lee Messer, a kindergarten teacher at Hazelwood Elementary in Haywood County, who takes her kids on the fieldtrip every year.
The park is rife with the chance to use observation skills, another big part of the kindergarten curriculum. They get clipboards and magnifying glasses to observe the world around them. Park rangers show them natural objects, like turtle shells and otter pelts, and ask the students to describe how they look, feel, smell and sound. To heighten the use of senses, students listen to recordings of animals and try to guess what animal it is.
Kindergartners are learning how to sort objects by category, and the rock pebbles along the Oconaluftee River prove fertile ground. Armed with nothing but two buckets, the students pick their own attributes — bumpy versus smooth, for example — and sort accordingly.
“Taking this fieldtrip brings everything you are talking about all year long to life,” Messer said. “It is an amazing, amazing fieldtrip. The children always come back talking about it.”