teachers explore the salt marsh

Teaching Teachers to ExPLORE NC

Author: Kelsey Ellis, APNEP Program Associate

Teachers waded through the shallow water of Bogue Sound, laughing and shouting as they searched the estuary’s sandy bottom for signs of life. Behind them, gnarled maritime forest backed shoreline-fringing salt marshes. The group had canoed and kayaked here as a part of the 2017 ExPLORE NC Teacher Institute, an annual APNEP-funded professional development institute for North Carolina’s teachers. The Institute seeks to introduce educators to hands-on, inquiry-based ways of teaching about our state's natural resources. 

After an introduction to the ecological and economic importance of estuaries, our guides from the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores set the group free to explore. Excitedly, teachers brought their discoveries - hermit crabs, channeled whelks, sea squirts, baby fish, blue crabs, see-through grass shrimp, and more - to the Aquarium staff for identification. Questions quickly turned into discussions of how what they’d learned could be incorporated in lesson plans.

For Sarah Yelton, Environmental Education Coordinator for the UNC Institute for the Environment and longtime lead facilitator of the Teacher Institute, these conversations are a sign of success. In her experience, outdoor learning experiences are more helpful for educators than lesson plans alone. “Seeing the life that is out there in the estuary – there’s no substitute for smelling the pluff mud and feeling the salt from the Spartinagrass,” she says. Sarah wants teachers to take the hands-on activities, knowledge, and resources introduced during the Institute back to the classroom. Her hope is that teachers will strive to “give their students hands-on, real-world experiences. We give teachers similar experiences during the Institute so they’ll hopefully feel more confident about taking that back to their students.”

APNEP has funded a Teacher Institute each summer since 2002. The Institute typically takes place on North Carolina’s coast and lasts for the better part of a week. It is currently led by the UNC Institute for the Environment (UNC-IE), but the North Carolina Office of Environmental Education’s Environmental Education Fund and the UNC Superfund Research Program have facilitated the Institute in the past.

While the 2017 Institute recruited 4th and 5th grade teachers, educators from kindergarten through 12th grade have participated over the years. Although content and grade level might change from year to year, “the common thread running through all the Institutes is that they are watershed-focused – helping teachers understand how everything is connected within a watershed,” explains Sarah. “Our goal is helping teachers increase their science content knowledge, learn from scientists and expert environmental educators, and increase their confidence in getting their students outdoors.”

Evaluations have shown that the Teacher Institute’s approach works – “our evaluations over the years have shown that we [increase teacher confidence],” says Sarah, “that we are increasing their science content knowledge, and that they are using the resources we give to them.” After learning about the N.C. Office of Environmental Education’s North Carolina Environmental Education Certification during the Institute, participants from past years have pursued and obtained their certification. “I know that we’ve had a positive influence on their teaching,” Sarah says.

"The entire experience of ExPLORE NC was great!" says Amanda Lockhart, one of the participating teachers from 2017. "The chance to connect with other educators from around North Carolina and explore the watershed was the best professional development experience I've had in a long time. My favorite experience was kayaking to the estuary and seeing firsthand how amazing and important a clean watershed is."

In addition, the Institute introduces teachers to regional partners that can act as future resources. Aside from the paddling trip with the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, this year’s teachers were led on a beachcombing scavenger hunt by staff from N.C. Sea Grant, nature journaled and practiced citizen science with staff from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fellow introduced them to the new EnviroAtlas online resource, N.C. National Estuarine Research Reserve staff showcased estuary-themed lesson plans, and staff from the N.C. Coastal Federation took teachers seine-netting in the salt marsh.

This year's Teacher Institute is unique in that it is part of a year-long professional development opportunity called ExPLORE NC, which is supported by the Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Family Foundation. “APNEP has started these teachers off on a journey through the Teacher Institute,” says Sarah. Their professional development will continue through weekend retreats in other parts of the Tar-Pamlico watershed, as well as virtual meetings, throughout the school year. Each meeting will give the teachers resources and experiences that they can use in their classrooms. “Everything we do is aligned in some way with their curriculum,” says Sarah, “and besides, you get to spend time outside, meet tons of experts and learn from them, and you’re going to have a lot of fun.”

Looking forward, “I would really like to see a continuation of ExPLORE NC in some way, shape, or form,” says Sarah. “A program where teachers can have sustained involvement and build a community that really does have a sense for what an entire watershed looks like, how issues change, and how land use changes depending on where you are in that watershed.”

The Teacher Institute supports two of APNEP's Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) actions:

  • D2.1: Provide and promote opportunities for outdoor experiences that connect individuals with the Albemarle-Pamlico ecosystem, and
  • D2.2: Provide environmental education training opportunities for educators in the region.

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