TENNESSEE, USA — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park welcomes thousands of students each year for hands-on learning outdoors. But that changed in 2020.
When the pandemic hit, those trips were cancelled, but the education didn't stop.
Funding from Friends of the Smokies didn't let the program die. It helps convert the park into a classroom online.
In the Great Smoky Mountains, the entire national park is considered a classroom.
"Pre-pandemic, our education program is very much a play-space education program and we see about 20,000 students on field trips per year," said Susan Sachs, the education branch coordinator for GSMNP.
But with COVID restrictions, that hands-on learning made a shift to the screen. It's all on a website, Smokieees.org.
"So it's very much geared toward what's special about the Smokies and what makes this place unique," Sachs explained.
It brings the beauty and education of the national park to homes and school rooms all across the world.
"We definitely are reaching a much wider audience who can learn about the Smokies and maybe hopefully one day actually come and visit us," Sachs added.
The three Es stand for explore, entertain and escape. Under each section you will find videos, coloring pages and lessons, all easy to digest in one place.
"We wanted to make it very place-based and very Smokies specific, but also put the twist on that you can also do this in your backyard," Sachs said.
It's something that didn't exist before 2020. Friends of the Smokies is the backbone of the program and jumped in to help in the spring when the park shut down.
The nonprofit provides necessary funding to keep the website and "parks as classrooms" program afloat.
"None of this would have happened without Friends of the Smokies," Sachs nodded.
This online portal to the park isn't going anywhere.
"I only see further expansion, which means more support is needed," Sachs smiled.
It's all a mouse click away.
If you would like to donate to the Friends of the Smokies, click here.