Teacher in Parks program helps teachers learn about GSMNP resources and expand their teaching skills

July 21, 2019

  • GSMNP mapping elk locations

by Julie Dodd

The Teacher in Parks (TiP) program offers teachers the opportunity to learn about the natural and cultural resources of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The teachers can take knowledge and incorporate it into their lesson plans and the classroom.

“I love helping to facilitate this summer experience for the teachers,” said Joy Absher, Resource Education Park Ranger, who coordinates the teachers in the program in Tennessee. She has worked with the program for 10 years and says she looks forward to the program every summer.

Six teachers are involved in the Teacher in the Parks program this year. Five of the teachers are in Tennessee and one in North Carolina.

Most of the teachers participating in the program have STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) teaching assignments in their schools. Participating in the program enables them to expand their awareness of learning opportunities available in the Park.

“Teachers often don’t realize all the Citizen Science projects that are ongoing on in the Park,” Absher said.

Tennessee TiP Program

Four of the Tennessee teachers are funded by Arconic through a grant to FOTS. Arconic has funded the Teacher in the Parks program in Tennessee for over 10 years. The fifth Tennessee teacher this year is funded by Great Smoky Mountains Association. The North Carolina teacher is funded by FOTS.

Absher works with the teachers one-on-one to see what their teaching needs are and how they can incorporate hands-on learning experiences into their classrooms during the school year.

The teachers are able to spend time working with different divisions in the park – one day may include going out with the Fisheries Division to conduct a stream inventory or with a wildlife biologist to assist with elk monitoring in the park.

Absher said she enjoys seeing the teachers networking and brainstorming how they can use what they are learning in the Park in their classrooms.

Creating lesson plans

As part of the program, teachers work on a project. Some develop lesson plans that they can use in their classrooms. Others help develop lessons used by the Parks as Classrooms program. Those lessons are designed to match with the state standards for Tennessee and for North Carolina.

The Tennessee science standards changed last year, Absher said. Teacher in the Parks participants last summer helped review the Parks as Classrooms lessons to make sure the lessons matched up with the new state standards.

Teachers have so much material to cover to prepare students for the tests, Absher said. Because of time limits for planning and teaching, that can mean teachers rely on textbooks and worksheets.

The Parks as Classrooms materials enable teachers to teach critical issue topics – such as air and water quality – using natural and cultural resources of the park to enhance student learning.

Absher said she realizes how much time teachers commit on their own time to prepare lessons for their students. The Teacher in the Parks program can give teachers support and resources they need.

One of the teachers from the program who teaches at Austin-East Magnet High School in Knoxville wasn’t sure if she would be able to take her students on field trips to GSMNP to work on science projects. Absher is helping her set up an outdoor classroom at the school. Absher also is helping the teacher establish a recycling program for the school.

The Tennessee teachers in the Teacher in the Parks program this year include a middle school science teacher, two high school science teachers from the same school, a high school physics and statistics teacher, and a Spanish teacher.

The Spanish teacher helps translate the park field trip packets that go home to parents and she also helps in urban outreach.

“After the summer ends, I stay in contact with the teachers,” Absher said. She visits their classes to teach Parks in Classrooms lessons and to assist them in making arrangements for fields trips to GSMNP.

The Teacher in the Parks program also encourages teachers to take advantage of National Parks in the area, in addition to GSMNP. The teachers will visit Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Carl Sanburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, North Carolina, to gain a better understanding of the teacher resources available.

North Carolina TiP program

North Carolina has one teacher who is based at the Appalachian Highland Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob and is funded by Friends of the Smokies.

Joshua Robinson collecting data

Joshua Robinson collects data in the ozone garden at Purchase Knob. Once he learned the data collection skills, he taught them to middle school students. Photo by Erin Lamm

This summer’s intern is Joshua Robinson, who has taught science at Waynesville (North Carolina) Middle School and next year will teach 7th and 8th grade science in a private school in Beijing, China.

Erin Lamm, Education Park Ranger, explained that a key role for Robinson is assisting with the high school summer intern program. He mentors the interns, works alongside them on park projects, and handles the logistics of the interns’ activities.

Learning new skills

Robinson has learned a variety of new skills. He worked with a team using triangulation and telemetry to attempt to locate elk calves in the Cataloochee Valley. (See photo at top of the blog post.) He assisted the fisheries crew with a survey on the Upper Oconaluftee River, and helped the trail crew clean 540 feet of drainage along the Deep Creek Trail.

Robinson also has learned how to obtain salamander tail clips for genetic testing purposes and will practice those skills in collecting tail clippings in two locations in the park.

After learning to monitor ozone damage on crown bear plants, he taught those skills to middle school students and young adults. He also has taught elementary students about the natural and cultural resources of the park. He will help the high school interns prepare a presentation for their end of the season celebration, when they will share what they have learned in their internship with their families and friends.

“I feel this summer experience has allowed me to learn to utilize the outdoors to teach young youths about important topics that relate to their everyday lives that impacts our healthy living, such as ground level ozone,” Robinson said.

“Nature becomes our classroom and students become closer with nature,” he said. “From this internship I really want to incorporate more outdoor activities that promote a meaningful learning experience that is engaging.”

The Teacher in the Parks program is six weeks, with the participants commuting to the park from their homes in counties near the park. The funds for the program provide a teacher stipend and help with teacher project needs and supplies.

You can enable teachers to participate in the Teacher in Parks program by making a donation to Friends of the Smokies.