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Photo courtesy Jim Watson | Teachers relocate a loggerhead turtle nest under supervision of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources at a past teacher training workshop on Sapelo Island.

A group of teachers from the Hamilton County area will travel to the University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island next week for a five-day environmental education teacher training program.

Since its inception in 2008, the program has drawn teachers and returning program alumni across disciplines and grade levels for its hands-on approach and involvement of teachers.

Last year, no new teachers could attend the workshop due to the coronavirus pandemic, but this year's workshop will bring a new group during its run from June 14-18. Teachers from public, private, parochial and homeschool settings attend the workshop each year, said Jim Watson, a teacher at Ivy Academy who put the program together in 2008.

"To me this is probably the most important thing that we do — the teachers are part of the instruction. They don't go and sit and listen to somebody talk or show them something," Watson said.

Along with meeting professors and locals and taking a tour of the island, Watson said, there are three types of activities that take place during the trip: planned activities they do each year, like a marsh study and marine debris study; accidental activities that come up unexpectedly, like meeting with turtle experts; and development of an environmental lesson.

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Environmental education training program

"Something very unique is each teacher has to develop an environmental lesson for their classroom — whatever discipline, whatever group of students they teach. They have to develop about a 15-minute environmental education lesson that fits their discipline, that fits their students, and then they share it with the group. They basically teach the group," Watson said. "So the teachers are part of the instruction. Those are not done in most teacher professional development."

Jen Clemmer, a forensics and AP environmental science teacher at Baylor School, will be attending the workshop for the first time this year. She said she has heard good things from colleagues who attended it in years past, and she looks forward to connecting with other teachers.

"The science aspect, just getting to know the coast on the southeastern United States a little bit better, was definitely the first draw," Clemmer said. "But over this semester and this year, where we haven't been able to build community within even Chattanooga or Hamilton County, I'm almost looking forward to that even more, just getting to know teachers and people that are either interested in the same subject area or teach similar students, and building some more community with other teachers, really."

The workshop has received funding from Volkswagen for the last few years, Watson said, and teachers do not receive stipends. While the new group of teachers is covered by funding, alumni of the program who want to return in subsequent years must pay their own way.

AnnaLouise Haynes Myers, a visual arts teacher in Hamilton County Schools, has attended the workshop multiple times since 2014. She said the experience is different each year, and she enjoys the cultural aspects of the trip, like learning about basket weaving from the Gullah people, along with ecological lessons like observing researchers who study turtle nesting sites.

"It's just such a treasure, and so every time we go, the marsh is different and the island is different, and you get to see and smell and dive right into all the different parts of the island in a new way every time you go," Haynes Myers said.

"It's also a really important piece of heritage for the Gullah people of our country, and so the fact that there are still some traditional aspects of that culture alive on the island is also just something that we are able to experience with the basket weaving lessons."

The program has grown over time from a one-man operation run by Watson to having four permanent staff members in charge of food and logistics, he said. It also changes year to year based on the subjects and grade levels taught by teachers, with a goal of incorporating environmental lessons or aspects into existing curriculum.

"This is environmental education, virtually every subject from home ec to auto mechanics to choir to everything can do an environmental education activity in their discipline, and all it is is, taking whatever's in your discipline and giving an environmental twist to it that promotes positive actions towards the environment," Watson said.

"So whether it's developing environmental songs, or why you should recycle your oil and not drain it in the ground, that's up to the individual teacher, so each workshop is different in the sense that we try to accommodate whatever discipline is there."

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at or 423-757-6592.