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Packing plenty of sunblock and extra pairs of shoes, nearly twenty middle- and high-school science teachers, primarily from the coastal and piedmont regions of North Carolina, set out on an interactive four-day professional development program, known as “At Water’s Edge,” along the North Carolina coast in early July. Presented by a partnership between UNC Institute for the Environment’s (IE) Center for Public Engagement with Science and Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership (APNEP), this free program immerses science teachers in a variety of hands-on activities led by expert environmental educators and researchers to explore the latest in watershed science.
“We are lucky to have such great partners along the coast who are excited to come in and share their resources with these teachers,” says Sarah Yelton, environmental education and citizen science program manager at IE.
Finishing its eighth year of operation since its partnership with IE began, At Water’s Edge uses the interdisciplinary approach of environmental education, including relevant field experiences, to strengthen teachers’ knowledge of coastal ecosystems and watershed management and skill in facilitating outdoor learning experiences for their students.
“[The teachers] are out in the field having experiences in coastal ecosystems that they might not otherwise,” Yelton says. “They are able to bring that back to their classroom in ways that make learning engaging, relevant and real to their students.”
In 2019, the institute began with an instructional session led by Yelton about using nature journaling to collect field observations, as well as a variety of activities led by marine education specialist at NC Sea Grant, Terri Kirby Hathaway, and guided by the book North Carolina’s Amazing Coast. These sessions were designed to help teachers develop a sense of place among coastal environments.
Much of the trip was dedicated to exploring ways in which watershed management efforts can impact the health of aquatic ecosystems. Participants took part in hands-on watershed exploration led by Lauren Daniel, coordinator for Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) from NC Division of Water Resources Education and Outreach. The teachers had the opportunity to assess water quality in a freshwater pond, allowing them to learn first-hand how last year’s hurricanes may have impacted water quality in freshwater ecosystems. As a chance to unwind, the group took walks through the beaches and maritime forest as the sun began to set.
Before touring the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, the group spent time collecting data in the salt marsh and beach ridge to gain a better understanding of the geological history of North Carolina’s barrier islands. Led by Carson Miller and Molly Bost, graduate students in Tony Rodriguez’s lab at UNC Institute for Marine Sciences (IMS), the teachers participated in some of the field techniques used by these researchers, such as using soil cores and ground-penetrating radar maps.
Lori Davis, education coordinator with the NC Coastal Reserve, shared activities designed to explore life in estuarine ecosystems at the Rachel Carson Research Reserve, part of the NC National Estuarine Research Reserve system. And before departing, the teachers went seining with Rachel Bisesi from the NC Coastal Federation to learn about the rich biodiversity of the state’s living shorelines and how to protect these ecosystems.
Interest in this program has grown substantially in recent years – this year, there were three times as many applicants as there were spaces available. Having been an environmental educator for the last 20 years, Yelton is excited by this uptick in interest among teachers and is a firm believer in the value of hands-on science activities in the classroom.
“I am really passionate about empowering teachers with the knowledge and skills that they need to be able to confidently get their students into the natural world, learning about the positive and negative impacts we have on our watersheds,” Yelton says. “Our success is a direct result of strong partnerships that bring resources and training to support teachers in providing their students hands-on experiences in their own watersheds.”
To learn more about the 2020 program and to apply, please visit: https://ie.unc.edu/at-waters-edge/ The application period will close on Friday, March 13, 2020.
Story by Dylan Morgan ’22
Dylan Morgan is an environmental science major at UNC and is part of the graduating class of 2022. This past summer, he worked as a communications intern at the UNC Institute for the Environment. Morgan’s career aspirations combine environmental research with journalistic storytelling, particularly in the fields of ecological restoration and natural resource conservation.