We believe passionately that learning about the environment should be done through first-hand experience. Instead of simply reading about biodiversity, you should see, smell, touch, and listen to the Park’s species. Instead of just hearing a lecture about air pollution, you should also see the impact for yourself and learn to identify acid rain damage on leaves. Instead of merely talking about threats from invasive-exotic species, you should witness their devastation directly.
Not only do we believe that direct experience is critical in environmental education, we also believe that learning through experience brings many other benefits. These benefits include:
An appreciation of nature
To understand what is at stake in environmental education, we need to get outside and experience nature. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other parts of Southern Appalachia are visited by millions of tourists each year who are hoping to capture a glimpse of the natural beauty that makes this part of the country famous.
Of course, understanding environmental issues is about more than just enjoying breathtaking natural scenery. For this reason, our students experience the consequences of a wide variety of different strategies and philosophies of natural resource management. These experiences range from hiking in old-growth forests in the Park, to boating on artificial reservoirs created by the TVA, to hiking through a strip-mall parking lot.
Gaining a sense of place
Central to this class is the theme that a connection to our natural environment is fundamental to who we are; it is a core component of our very identity. Appalachian people understand home to be inextricable from the mountains, the redbud and bloodroot blooming in spring, the songs of local birds, and sound of rushing water pulsing with life. One of the major assignments in this course asks students to give a presentation on how the biodiversity in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park compares and/or contrasts to their own sense of nature at home.
Hiking or kayaking under your own power is good for both body and mind. It improves physical health and leads to a great sense of accomplishment at the end of a strenuous day. It also allows you to sense nature in ways you couldn’t have done when taking motorized transportation and allows for a much more profound and immersive encounter with natural settings. We believe that exercise can be significant not only for health benefits, but also for bringing new insights into understanding natural spaces.
An interdisciplinary approach
Studying ecology–the biological field that focuses on natural relationships–is a critical part of understanding the environment. Of equal importance is a grasp of how we impact and are impacted by nature. History demonstrates how humans have continued or changed our relationships to nature over time. The study of politics is necessary to understand how institutions and mass-movements alter our connections to nature and natural resources. Human psychology, literature and the arts can help to teach us about our personal connections to the environment.