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Teachers focus on the outside

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June 12 – Chickadees, wolf spiders, wood storks, alligators and hog-nosed snakes have been topics of discussion – and occasional hands-on contact – over the past few days for members of Environmental Education Association of South Carolina, as the organization held its annual meeting conference in Aiken County.

The Savannah River Ecology Lab Conference Center hosted most of the activities, with the overall theme of “teaching off the beaten path”, and field trips reached places such as Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve. Attendees represented a variety of public and private sector schools and other organizations from South Carolina and Georgia, and activities ran from Wednesday morning through early Saturday afternoon.

Sharing ideas with other educators was an important part of the program for some, including Annie Boyd, education coordinator at the Beaufort Soil and Water Conservation District. She said she particularly appreciated the contribution of naturalist Sean Poppy, SREL; and former SREL employee Tony Mills, now widely known as the writer and host of SCETV’s popular “Coastal Kingdom” show.

Boyd added, “We were really excited about everything we were learning about how to incorporate more outdoor and hands-on activities into our program.”

Discussions and demonstrations covered topics such as loggerhead turtles, dung beetles, bald eagles, crayfish/crayfish and fire-building tools – “an abundance of spectacular opportunity”, in the words of Mike Walker, an interpretive ranger at Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet. He described his work as “one-third zookeeper, one-third teacher and one-third wildlife biologist”.

Aiken Standard columnist and longtime SREL leader Whit Gibbons, one of the South’s most eminent herpetologists, was among the weekend guests, as he attended a Friday night rally and signed copies of some of his books.

The whole event was “a fantastic opportunity”, in the words of longtime educator John Kassel, who is now preparing for his first year as a math and science teacher at Mead Hall. He said he particularly enjoyed a presentation by renowned naturalist Tom Mancke, of Hopkins, emphasizing primitive technology, such as fire-making techniques involving flint and steel or the rubbing of two sticks together.

Among the short-haul travelers was Kandace Cave, a program coordinator for Aiken County. “It was amazing – very eye-opening,” she said.

“It was geared more towards formal educators and non-traditional educators, to kind of get young people interested in the environment, and…I learned a lot of new strategies that I can implement in my programming – ways that I can help support teachers in the classroom regarding environmental education – so that was very exciting and helpful.

Walker, referring to EEASC, said: “They’ve grown and really organized themselves over the years. I was very impressed with the quality of the conference – the presentations and just the organization of it- this.”

His only “beef,” he said, was having to choose between concurrent activities of interest, as happened on Friday morning when a group drove to the facility. Audubon, for an overview of wetland management and the bird banding process; while another went to the turtle sanctuary, to focus on solitary reptiles widely known for their digging ability.

Membership of the EEASC is “open to all who wish to promote the study, care, conservation and rational use of our natural resources”, according to the organization’s website. The conference is normally annual but did not take place in 2020 or 2021 due to COVID-19.

As for the conference, “Overall it was great,” Cave said, confirming that she appreciated the ability to attend a conference without traveling significant mileage. “It was never a dull moment and it was very affordable,” she added.