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Parks As Classrooms: So Much More Than a Field Trip

April 13, 2017

Kelsey Reese is an Ecology and Biology teacher at Fulton High School in Knox County, TN who recently took her class on a field trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park as part of the Parks As Classrooms program. Kelsey and her students enjoyed their day in the park so much, she volunteered to write a blog post for us to share. Read more below to learn about Kelsey’s experience and what a day in the Smokies means to her students.

Friends of the Smokies is proud to support environmental education programs in GSMNP with your donations, including more than $287,000 in 2017 alone.


by Kelsey Reese, Ecology/Biology teacher at Fulton High School (Knox County)

Fulton High School’s experience with the Parks as Classrooms program has been nothing short of amazing.

From the excellent communication that we have received from the GSMNP education department, to the standards based, hands-on, activities both in our classrooms at school and while on field trips, it is no wonder why we continue to take advantage of this incredible program again and again.

As a high school science teacher, I have found it difficult to find programs that both engage my students and pertain to the Tennessee state standards. The Parks as Classrooms program executes both of these criteria and leaves my students (and me!) wanting to return every semester.

I (along with my colleague Kim Kennard) first learned of the Parks as Classrooms Program through a Knox County inservice day, where a few Park Rangers came to present on field trip opportunities within the park. Interested, we reached out. Joy Absher got in touch with me very quickly and explained the process of each trip.

Setting up the field trip

First we got to choose between several different educational programs—we have done both the Salamander Program and Macroinvertebrates Program. Joy then helped us set up a time before our trip where Park Rangers came to Fulton and worked with our students to explain and inform them of things they would need to know prior to the field trip.

Fulton High Parks as Classrooms

Fulton High School students explored streams as part of their Parks as Classrooms field trip.

The Park Rangers leading our field trips have always contacted us a few days before our planned field trip to go over any additional information (weather conditions, what to wear, etc)—they are very thorough, and when you’re traveling with 40 high schoolers, that is very much appreciated!

The program takes place at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. You can expect that the program will take most of the school day.

We usually arrive around 10am, and depart around 2:30pm. With that wide range of time, we are always able to complete two lessons on one day.

Salamander Program

We usually start by doing the Salamander Program. This program allows for our students to study the health of a creek within the park by monitoring which type of salamanders that they find.

Putting on waterproof boots (that the park provides), students get to walk up and down a specified section of a shallow creek and, in partners, carefully lift rocks in hopes that they will be able to catch a salamander. All though students get a little squeamish about this at first, even my most reluctant students have loved this!

Macroinvertabrates Program

Following the Salamander Program, we do the Macroinvertabrates Program. With this, we travel a short distance to a different creek, and students use both kick-nets and d-nets to catch a wide variety of creatures.

Fulton High School students - PAC

Students collected macroinvertabates and then identified them during their field trip to GSMNP.

You’re likely to hear LOTS of squeals from students during this activity as they are catching Mayflys, Stoneflies, Water Pennies, and Crawdads (and we even found salamander eggs!).

Students are then able to identify their macroinvertabates using a dichotomous key.

One of my students said it best when coming back from our trip he proclaimed, “This has been one of the best days of my life.”

The park does a fabulous job engaging students, and creating memories for them that will literally last forever. I cannot say enough about how thankful for the opportunity that GSMNP’s Parks as Classrooms program has given Fulton.

Special shout out to Katie Corrigan and Julianne Geleynse—they are ROCK STAR Park Rangers and leaders of this program! Fulton is SO THANKFUL for them!!!


If you are a teacher who’d like to learn more about the Parks As Classrooms program in GSMNP, please click here.

To make a donation in support of life-changing programs like this, click here.