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By Shelby Brown

Shelby BrownShelby Brown is a junior Environmental Studies major and an Education and Outreach Intern with the UNC Institute for the Environment.

Connecting Teachers with State Parks

This summer I had the opportunity to work for UNC Institute for the Environment through an APPLES service-learning internship. I primarily worked on the “A Park for Every Child” project for the duration of my internship position.

A Park for Every Child – North Carolina State Parks Teacher Collaborative is a year-long professional development experience for 4th and 5th-grade teachers in North Carolina. UNC Institute for the Environment partnered with North Carolina State Parks to facilitate the collaborative.

Bringing students outside is often seen as a challenge by teachers. This program was designed to provide educators with the tools and resources to feel confident in bringing their classes on a field trip to a North Carolina State Park.

Two, three-day collaboratives took place this summer. The first collaborative took place at Kerr Lake State Recreation Area and Medoc Mountain State Park during July. The second collaborative took place at Lake James State Park and South Mountain State Park during August.  (see map below)

Map of North Carolina State Parks (2019)
Map of North Carolina State Parks (2019)

The first day of each collaborative served as an orientation to the program and outlined goals for the experience. Many teachers shared their desire to learn more about using the outdoors as an extension of the indoor classroom.  This collaborative provided teachers with behavior management skills and lesson plan ideas, aligned with the NC Essential Standards for Science and Social Studies.

Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Over the course of three days, teachers were provided with many opportunities to step out of their comfort zone. A variety of activities included:

  • participating in a Spider Safari;
  • canoeing in State Parks’ 14-person Big Canoes;
  • searching for macroinvertebrates in a creek; and
  • spending time exploring hiking trails.
Teachers using the Big Canoes at Kerr Lake State Recreation Area. Photo Credit: Lauren Greene
Teachers using the Big Canoes at Kerr Lake State Recreation Area. Photo Credit: Lauren Greene

Each activity connected with NC Essential Standards and was modeled for teachers as they would present it to their students. The teachers learned from a student’s perspective during the collaborative, which many said they enjoyed on end of program evaluations.

The collaborative concluded with a session on the importance of outdoor learning. Benefits of outdoor learning can be grouped into social and emotional benefits, academic benefits, and physical benefits. Some benefits include improved test scores, reduced anxiety and depression, improved attention spans, and enhanced creativity. Sharing the evidence on benefits of outdoor learning can be an effective way to gain parent and administrative support for bring students outside during class or on a field trip.

Teachers looking for macroinvertebrates at Lake James State Park. Photo Credit: Lauren Greene
Teachers looking for macroinvertebrates at Lake James State Park. Photo Credit: Lauren Greene

Funding for field trip transportation is made possible by Friends of North Carolina State Parks, who are dedicated to removing the barrier of cost whenever possible to make field trips to state parks affordable for all students. Funding for the collaborative was provided by North Carolina State Parks.

Although the teachers at each collaborative were from the same county, many of them had never met. This collaborative served as a means of forming a professional learning network among these teachers. After the conclusion of the summer institutes, teachers are encouraged to stay connected and build community through an online platform. UNC IE staff will stay in contact with teachers through webinars, a listserv, to continue to share lessons and provide assistance as needed throughout the year.

We are excited to continue working with these dedicated teachers over the course of the 2019-20 school year, and can’t wait to learn how they have been able to incorporate their experiences with us in the summer into their teaching! I am fortunate to have the opportunity to continue working for IE on this project throughout the school year.

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