Eighteen 4th and 5th grade teachers from North Carolina got their feet wet, literally, learning about how to incorporate outdoor education into their classrooms at the 2018-2019 kick-off of ExPLORE NC, a teacher professional development program. ExPLORE NC is an acronym for Experiencing Place-based Learning Outdoors in Rivers and Ecosystems of North Carolina.
The program, now in its fourth year, is led by the Institute for the Environment’s Environmental Resource Program (ERP). It began with a weeklong retreat at the Trinity Center in Salter Path, NC, where teachers waded in the sound looking for sea life, canoed or kayaked, hiked the maritime forest, and met with experts who led sessions on ecosystems in Eastern North Carolina, watersheds and streams, and how they are all connected. Teachers also explored the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores and hunted for ghost crabs on the beach.
“We start this year-long journey at the bottom of the watershed, then work our way upstream over the course of the year to explore many different ecosystems and influences on the health of the watershed,” said Sarah Yelton, director of ExPLORE NC and an environmental education coordinator at the UNC Institute for the Environment.
The program is intended to immerse teachers in hands-on, inquiry-based activities so that they can incorporate current, place-based content into their classrooms. During the year, teachers will attend two weekend retreats in the middle and upper regions of the Tar-Pamlico river basin.
Teachers in the program are encouraged to sign up with a partner so that they can support each other throughout the year, and will check-in with program leaders and peers through an online professional learning community on the progress of their outdoor classroom experiences at their home institutions.
“Developing a sense of community is an important part of the program. We work hard to foster that connection among teachers throughout the year,” said Megan Rodgers, program assistant for ExPLORE NC.
When ExPLORE NC teachers are increasing the time their students spend outdoors, their students benefit in numerous ways, and also develop an awareness and appreciation of conservation and environmental stewardship.
“Research shows that people benefit from connecting with nature,” Yelton said. “For students, time spent outdoors does everything from improving academic performance to enhancing creative thinking and reducing stress.”
The program is free for teachers due to the generous support of the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership (APNEP), the Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Family Foundation. ERP also relies on the generous support of its partners including North Carolina Sea Grant, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, North Carolina Coastal Federation, North Carolina Coastal Reserve, and NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
“We want teachers to gain a sense of place and connection to North Carolina’s amazing natural resources, and to inspire them to share the outdoors with their students,” Yelton said. “We also want them to be aware of all the many resources and organizations in North Carolina that can assist teachers in bringing the outdoors to their students and classrooms.”