Their classroom is the great outdoors

2:40 PM, May 24, 2013   |    comments
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A program to make learning come alive takes students out of the classroom and into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The park and an East Tennessee school have partnered on the project for more than 20 years.

One recent day a group of third graders were not reading a book or writing a report. They were spending the day outside.

Pi Beta Phi Student Lorenzo Perez said, "I think we're still learning."

Melissa Crisp said, "Let's get out let's do it hands on let's connect all of the subjects together and let's make learning fun and useful."

Melissa Crisp that's the goal of thePi Beta Phi Elementary School program called Parks as Classrooms.

The students' first stop was downtown Gatlinburg.

Lorenzo Perez / Pi Beta Phi Student: "We got to meet the City Manager and the Mayor and we got to ask them questions and we got to learn all about the police station and the fire department."

Next stop was the historic Noah Bud Ogle Cabin where a hundred years ago calling the fire department wasn't an option.

Homesteaders in what is now theGreat Smoky Mountains National Park had to work together to fight fires.

Hearing it is one way to learn that fact. Doing it is a better way to retain it and understand it.

"They had to wake everyone up and even though they still have to do that today they would have to run down to the creek and grab a few buckets and they would have to form a fire brigade," Pi Beta Phi Student Ellie Fuller said. "It would take a lot longer than with the fire departments we have today."

Melissa Crisp said, "It makes the students understand why they're learning what they're learning and it gives them a sense of fun and excitement that learning is something enjoyable."

By the time the students leave Pi Beta Phi Elementary they will have completed 36 learning units plus service units.

"We start off in kindergarten learning about wildflowers and our senses and we go all the way up into things like archaeology units," Crisp said.

Education Branch Chief Karen Ballentine said, "By the end of the K-8 experience they really do have that sense of stewardship and want to take care of the park."

This experience plants a seed that often blossoms after they've finished the Parks as Classrooms program.

"They come back and volunteer on high school volunteer days, many of them become high school interns, some go on to become park service employees, so I think it is a great opportunity for them to learn," she said.

Karen Ballentine said the park and Pi Beta Phi School have worked together on this program for 23 years and plan to continue it for many more.

Melissa Crisp said, "Learning is lifetime. It's not just something we do while we're at school."

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