A group of Hamilton County teachers returned this week from an environmental education trip to an uncommercialized, state-protected island off Georgia coast.
The educators represent schools across Hamilton County and teach a variety of subjects, from early elementary through high school. Trip leader and Ivy Academy environmental educator Jim Watson hopes the teachers will take the lessons back to their schools and incorporate environmental education into other subjects.
"What we're trying to do is promote environmental education in all classrooms," Watson said. "Environmental education is all based on attitudes toward a sustainable environment, and we want to show the teachers they can take whatever they're teaching and give it an environmental twist that provides the kids those positive attitudes toward the environment."
On the five-day trip, teachers learned about the history of Sapelo Island, a hub for conservation and wildlife research. There were planned activities to learn about marine biology and the impact of human actions on the environment, but one of the most memorable experiences came during an unplanned lesson when the teachers stumbled upon a Georgia Department of Natural Resources researcher.
The Volkswagen-funded trip is in its 11th year and Watson said he's never had an experience like that one. Most years, teachers will wake up at night to see if they can find sea turtles leaving the ocean for nesting. Some years they are successful, others they are not.
This year, they got to do more than watch. The researcher was studying the sea turtles' habitat and determined one of the nests needed to be moved. The teachers helped the researcher carefully relocate 127 eggs to a safer location.
"It was a great opportunity for teachers to get out of their element. It's such an amazing place to experience things I wouldn't normally experience," East Ridge Elementary math and science teacher Stevie Davis said.
"You build a great camaraderie with people that you wouldn't normally get to hang out with for this length of time," Davis said.
While they were staying on a sandy island, the teachers said it wasn't all beaches and resort fun.
"It's not like going to Destin or Panama City," Davis said. "It's very rural. It's wild. There's not a lot of development, so it allows you to get in touch with your natural roots."
Teachers said they found special value in the mini-lessons. Each day, several teachers had to create an environmentally focused lesson using information learned on the trip. It was a way to show that environmental lessons can be incorporated into all subjects.
Those lessons go onto a website open to teachers, said Lookout Mountain Elementary science teacher Mary Avans.
"I know I'll be pulling from those. I already know which ones I'm going to pull," Avans said.
Watson hopes to eventually have a teacher from every school in the county take the trip. He said he's about halfway there. It's a goal the Hamilton County Department of Education fully supports.
"Environmental science and ecology, they bleed into so many other disciplines like geography, social studies, history and then the other sciences," said Lory Heron, the district's high school lead science teacher.
"To teach environmental science and ecology seems to be a natural construct for getting students involved in seeing big pictures."