Several education and environmental organizations from this region joined hundreds of others last week in asking Congress to fund school improvements for outdoor learning as students head back to class during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, University of Tennessee and Pi Beta Phi Elementary School in Gatlinburg are among nearly 500 signers on a July 22 letter to congressional leaders organized by the North American Association of Environmental Education.
The Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and National Science Teaching Association also signed the letter urging lawmakers to give “special consideration to the role outdoor spaces can play in enhancing the safety, well-being, and academic success of students and teachers.”
“The average primary school sits on five or more acres, while the average secondary school occupies 15 to 20 acres,” NAAEE states, yet few schools use that space for learning. “Moreover, research increasingly shows significant benefits of outdoor learning on mental and physical health, stress reduction, student engagement and academic success.”
Options NAAEE cites range from using open-sided tents to create additional classroom spaces to providing opportunities for hands-on learning and project-based education in STEM, science, technology, engineering and math.
Usually thousands of students from more than a dozen states visit Tremont during the school year, but those programs have been shut down since March because of the pandemic.
Tremont was able to keep staff with funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, and in June they visited four Boys and Girls Clubs to offer free programs a couple of days a week.
Now, however, it has laid off about half of its 32 full-time staff members, according to DiDiego.
Next week will see its first on-campus program in four months, with a class that is part of the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program.
Those programs are designed to be small, with just 14 this time, and Tremont is taking extra precautions with masks and distancing.
“Even the lectures we can do outside in our pavilion,” said John DiDiego, Tremont’s education director. He’s also testing technology that will allow participants to see samples magnified without coming too close together.
Meals won’t be the usual family style, instead with spaced seating, and in the dorm each section will have only four or five people.
Teacher Escape Weekends to train educators in August and September are now planned as virtual events.
Tremont has told schools that previously booked trips for this fall that they can reschedule. Instead of having two or three schools at a time and more than 120 students, when those programs resume they are likely to be smaller.
DiDiego notes that even for schools that have resources just out their back door, like the nature trail at Carpenters Elementary, using it can be logistically tough for educators.
Building a sustainable program of outdoor education takes support and the opportunity for educators to plan together, DiDiego said. However even a weekly trip outside can be highly motivating for students.
Given the academic, health, social and physical benefits of learning outdoors, he said it’s exciting to see some states including that type of experience in their academic standards. “It can be pretty impactful for the amount of money we’d end up spending,” he said.
“The things we learn should be connected to the world,” DiDiego said.