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Teachers turn their focus outdoors

Chickadees, wolf spiders, wood storks, alligators and hognose snakes were topics of discussion – and occasional hands-on contact – over the past few days for members of the Environmental Education Association of South Carolina, as the organization held its annual conference in Aiken County.

The Savannah River Ecology Laboratory's conference center played host to most of the activities, with an overall theme of "Educating Outside the Box," and field trips reached out to such locales as Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Aiken Gopher Tortoise Heritage Preserve. Participants represented a variety of public- and private-sector schools and other organizations from around South Carolina and Georgia, and activities ran from Wednesday morning through early Saturday afternoon.  

Sharing insight with other educators was a huge part of the package for some, including Annie Boyd, an education coordinator with the Beaufort Soil and Water Conservation District. She said she particularly appreciated input from naturalist Sean Poppy, with SREL; and former SREL employee Tony Mills, now largely known as the writer and host of SCETV's popular "Coastal Kingdom" show. 

Boyd added, "We were just really stoked on all of the stuff that we were learning on how to incorporate more 'outdoorsy-ness' and hands-on activities into our program." 

Discussions and demonstrations touched on such topics as loggerhead turtles, dung beetles, bald eagles, crayfish/crawdads and fire-building tools – "an abundance of spectacular opportunities," in the words of Mike Walker, an interpretive ranger with Huntington Beach State Park, in Murrells Inlet. He described his job as "one-third zookeeper, one-third teacher and one-third wildlife biologist."

Aiken Standard columnist and longtime SREL leader Whit Gibbons, one of the South's most prominent herpetologists, was among the weekend's guests, as he attended a gathering Friday evening and autographed copies of some of his books. 

The event as a whole was "a fantastic opportunity," in the words of longtime educator John Kassel, now preparing for his first year as a math and science teacher at Mead Hall. He said he particularly appreciated a presentation by renowned naturalist Tom Mancke, from Hopkins, near Columbia, with emphasis on primitive technology, such as firemaking skills involving flint and steel or rubbing two sticks together. 

Among the short-distance travelers was Kandace Cave, a program coordinator for Aiken County. "It was amazing – very eye-opening," she said. 

"It was more geared towards formal educators and non-traditional educators, to kind of get young people interested in the environment, and ... I learned a lot of new strategies that I can implement in my programming – ways that I can help support teachers in the classroom when it comes to environmental education – so it was very exciting and worthwhile."

Walker, referring to the EEASC, said, "They have grown and they have really gotten organized over the years. I was super-impressed at the quality of the conference – the presentations and just the organization of it."

His only "beef," he said, was in having to choose between simultaneous activities of interest, as occurred Friday morning, when one group went to the Audubon facility, for a look at wetlands management and the process of banding birds; while another went to the tortoise preserve, to focus on solitary reptiles largely known for their digging ability. 

Membership in the EEASC is "open to all with a desire to promote the study, care, conservation and wise use of our natural resources," according to the organization's website. The conference is normally annual but was not held in 2020 or 2021 due to COVID-19. 

As for the conference, "Overall, it was great," Cave said, confirming that she appreciated the chance to attend a conference without logging significant mileage. "It was never a dull moment, and it was very affordable," she added. 

The event was sponsored by such organizations as Sonoco Recycling, Columbia Water, Walther Farms, Palmetto Pride, Roper Mountain Science Center, South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, South Carolina Education Association and Sand River Woman's Club.