Our Philosophy

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.

Hemlock wooly adelgids (Adelges tsugae) and balsam wooly adelgids (Adelges piceae) are invasive species that have decimated hemlock and fir forests in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The dead trees starkly contrast the living parts of the forest.

Hemlock wooly adelgids (Adelges tsugae) and balsam wooly adelgids (Adelges piceae) are invasive and exotic species that have decimated hemlock and fir forests in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The dead trees starkly contrast the green plants in this photo.

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.

A dragonfly on an asphalt road can illustrate how the natural world intersects with human engineering

We need to appreciate the complexity and beauty of nature, while also understanding our own impact

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.

Elijah Oliver's House

Living closer to nature often creates a heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings.  The weather, the changing of the seasons and the plants and animals that surround us take on increased importance.  The people who lived in and around Cades Cove knew this location like no one else.

Human power

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.

Moving around under our own power can be a profound experience.

Moving around under our own power can be a profound experience.

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.

LEED Gold Certified Crawford House at Maryville College is an example of how people can make a positive environmental impact through a careful, interdisciplinary understanding of environmental issues

Sunrise outside of Crawford House at Maryville College.  This LEED Gold Certified building serves an example of how people can make a positive environmental impact through a measured understanding of a broad range of environmental issues.

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