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Morgan County Science Camp: Frozen Head and Schools Working Together for Education

By Michael E. Hodge

For 28 years, the students of Morgan County have prospered through the partnership between local schools and Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area, proving that nature can open a child’s mind.

Students from third through sixth grades gather every June to camp at Frozen Head and experience a variety of outdoor educational programs and physical activities. This year’s camp is set for June 2-6.

Tennessee State Parks are perfect locations to provide children with access to nature and environmental education and have a long tradition of providing interpretive programming to park visitors. Local schools teaming with parks can be a powerful resource for teachers who wish to connect students with nature. One long-standing partnership exists today in Morgan County between elementary schools and Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area.

Studying water quality at Frozen Head State Park during Morgan County Science Camp. Photo by Diana Morgan.

In 1986, Governor Lamar Alexander started the Career Ladder program for the state’s schoolteachers. Part of the program was an extended contract allowing teachers to work during the summer and provide additional educational opportunities for students. Teachers across the state were making plans to best use this new opportunity and were exploring the resources within their districts. While some teachers planned visits to museums and art exhibits, a small group of teachers from Lancing Elementary School including Amy Savery, Diane Morgan, Sam Hoskins, Janette Hoskins, Gary and Sheila Aytes and Dallas Davis felt like they had a unique resource available to them in the public lands in their county.

Located in the Cumberland Mountains, Morgan County offers myriad outdoor recreational opportunities at Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area, as well as two national parks, and a state forest. People travel long distances to enjoy the natural recreation of the county and the teachers knew many of the children living in the county did not have access to some of the more expensive or specialized equipment needed to pursue these activities. They also felt that they could craft a natural science curriculum that would teach their students about their environment and instill ideas of environmental stewardship.

The teachers drafted a proposal to establish an Outdoor Education Program working with Frozen Head State Park. The program followed the principles of the nature study idea and in their proposal the teachers defined a successful program as including three components: “The use of the scientific process to obtain information;” “Using activities which improve observational skills;” and to provide “opportunities for students to participate in ‘hands on’ experimentation.” Their proposal dovetailed into the county’s curriculum and the teachers would use their local resources to build an “exemplary program.”

They planned the Morgan County Science Camp around the educational programs provided by the Frozen Head interpretive specialist and naturalist. Additional programs were provided by rangers and interpreters from the Obed National Wild and Scenic River, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area as well as local and regional experts on topics such as wildflowers, insects, and stream ecology.

The idea was supported by the school administration and in June of 1986 the first class of 35 students attending the Morgan County Science and Outdoor Education Camp gathered at Frozen Head and set about figuring out how to assemble the heavy canvas tents they had borrowed from the student’s parents.

When the program started the teachers had lacked money and equipment but what they did have was the support of the parks and the local community. While the camp now has its own tents, the first year the camp relied entirely on donations, parental volunteers, and a small fee of $5 that helped to buy food for the students. Later, the school district started a program providing breakfast and lunch for the children of the community and Frozen Head was selected as one of the locations to distribute the food, alleviating some of the logistics of feeding the students during the camp.

The students spend their days learning about the flora and fauna of the parks while hiking through the Cumberland Mountains and experiencing nature hands-on. Music and storytelling are key features. The students write their own stories and legends and share them around the campfire. The camp provides environmental education, but also memories for these children. On one occasion, while wading in the stream, the fifth and sixth graders caught fish with their hands and were able to cook and enjoy their catch, while sharing their hard-won meal with other campers in the park.

National park rangers teach the students how to rock climb and kayak at the Obed National Wild and Scenic River. These adventures provide the students with a positive experience of nature and science. This is proved through the eager return year after year of many students who come away from the camp with new skills and new understanding of their natural environment. Many of the students will continue to pursue and hone their skills, such as kayaking, throughout their lives.

Over the years Morgan County Science Camp has gained popularity. Other elementary schools have joined and the roster of teachers has grown. Morgan County students have benefited because of this partnership and they are seeing how connecting with nature can lead to a more satisfied and purposeful life.

For more information about Morgan County Science Camp, call Diana Morgan at Wartburg Central Elementary school at 423-346-6683 or contact Michael Hodge at 423-346-3318.

Read more about Tennessee State Parks on the website www.tnstateparks.com.
History of the Nature Study Movement

During the late 19th and early 20th century, nature study was promoted as a way to connect children to nature and teach students science through the observation of nature. The movement began in 1873 when one of the greatest scientists of the day, Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, welcomed 48 public school teachers to Penikese Island in Massachusetts to train them in natural history education.

From the 1890s through World War I, millions of students were involved in nature study. In his book, The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America’s Conservation Ethic, Kevin Armitage cites a 1915 study that “found that 14 states required elementary schools to teach nature study, and 23 states issued outlines for nature study instruction.”

This idea grew and between 1905 and 1915 nature study was part of the curriculum for almost every state in the nation. Agassiz felt that it was important that children learn about natural history from “the direct observation of natural phenomenon rather than learning about the outdoors from textbooks.”

Two important figures of nature study education were Liberty Hyde Bailey and Anna Comstock. Liberty Hyde Bailey published The Nature Study Idea in 1909 and wrote that the idea of nature study was not one of colleges but of elementary schools and that its purpose is to “open the pupil’s mind by direct observation to a knowledge and love of the common things and experiences in the child’s life and environment.”

Further, he stated that one purpose of nature study is “to put the pupil in a sympathetic attitude toward nature for the purpose of increasing his joy of living,” and to “enable every person to live a richer life.”

In her Handbook of Nature Study, first published in 1911, Mrs. Comstock defined the object of nature study as “to cultivate in the children powers of accurate observation and to build up within them understanding.” And that “nature-study gives the child a sense of companionship with life out-of-doors and an abiding love of nature.”

Mrs. Comstock also felt nature study was a help to children’s health, stating that “out-of-doors life takes the child afield and keeps him in the open air, which not only helps him physically and occupies his mind with sane subjects, but keeps him out of mischief.”

Supporters of nature study felt that exposing children to the natural world would also result in a greater interest in conservation. For nearly half a century the country’s school children explored the natural world around them using the principles of nature study; becoming intimate with the plants, animals, rocks, and minerals they observed. The movement influenced future leaders of the environmental movement such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson and changed the way society interacts and views the natural world.

Armitage argues that American values shifted during the period following World War I and our view of conservation “shifted from a moral duty to conserve wildlife to maximizing effectiveness of resource exploitation” and that values of “mass consumption and commercialized leisure became the popular ethos of the 1920s.”

Additionally, the lack of resources and training led teachers to turn to books that sentimentalized nature and created distance between the student and nature. According to Armitage, nature study was perceived as lacking order and discipline at a time when efficiency and behaviorism were gaining ground in education.

Even though nature study was being discarded in favor of more rigorous science classes, those influenced by nature study became champions of conservation. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring leading ultimately to the banning of DDT. Other authors and thinkers of the mid 20th century led the environmental movement. Despite this, children were increasingly isolated from nature education resulting in students lacking basic knowledge of the ecosystem surrounding them.

In addition to the lack of knowledge about nature, children are spending more time indoors with much of their time spent with computers, televisions and video games. This is believed to have led to an increase in problems such as childhood obesity and attention deficit disorder. Much has been written in the last two decades about the problem and in his bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe the problem.

In an effort to counter this, Tennessee has proposed several initiatives such as the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights and the Tennessee State Parks Junior Ranger program to encourage children to get outdoors and experience nature with Tennessee State Parks taking a lead role in these efforts. For more information about the Tennessee State Parks Junior Ranger Program visit:  www.tnstateparks.com/ get-involved/jr-rangers.

(Michael E. Hodge is a park ranger at Frozen Head State Park in Wartburg.)