But as I mentioned in last week’s postcard, I spent some solo time in the Smoky Mountains in July, practicing my budding naturalist skills and just generally finding my happy. One of the little bonus adventures I had though was the opportunity to visit Tremont for the final presentations being given by the participants of the Field Ecology summer course. This course is designed for 13 to 17 year olds and is a mixture of intense science and fun culminating in this poster session in which they shared all of their hard work.
So typically for a review post here on Val in Real Life, I would be bringing you a report on some sort of gear or campsite from my personal experience. Today however, I’m taking a different approach because what these students had to say about their experience at Tremont is too important not to share. For all of my experiential education cheerleading, I think it really comes home in their words.
But first a little background…
After ten days of conducting scientific experiments in the Great Smoky Mountains (along with some free time too…), the students presented their findings. The studies these particular student teams undertook involved birds, salamanders, crayfish, and hemlocks. They were responsible for constructing their hypotheses, planning the experiment, conducting the experiment, drawing conclusions, and putting together their presentations. Their efforts required teamwork, research, experimentation, analysis, scientific methodology, and problem solving… in other words, real-world skills. Not only that, but in the end they had to assess what didn’t work in their experiments, why it didn’t work, and what they would do differently to improve the study.
As you can imagine, teenagers producing this level of results, especially in terms of studying the natural world, is very exciting to me.
The presentations in and of themselves were fantastic, but it was when the students were asked to share their thoughts on their Tremont experience that the value of this program became most clear. Their honesty and insight was extremely poignant and compelling. Here are a few of their thoughts:
- One girl felt cheated by her rural education. She felt she got more out of her short time at Tremont than all of her time at school in part because of the lack of funding and resources available in her school district. She also pointed out that while her classmates in school complained of learning math they would never use in the real world, she actually did get to put that math into practice in their Tremont experiments.
- One boy said he learned how to conduct a real project in the real world…in other words, his effort actually had value and purpose.
- Another girl remarked how out-of-context her science studies were in school. Using geology as an example (dagger to my heart of course!), she said it was entirely boring just looking at pictures of this rock and that. Until she got the see rocks at Tremont in context, she simply couldn’t get excited about geology.
- One particularly poised boy was a return ecology camp student and remarked that the presentations gave him confidence that he carried back to his other school projects. He felt learning to work as a team was one of the biggest benefits of his Tremont experience.
There were many other wonderful, heartfelt comments made but at the time I was so wrapped up in amazement with these students that I didn’t take any notes. They all echoed these sentiments though and left us, as adults, impressed and astonished.
Basically what the students were saying is how important these hands-on experiences are. For them, all of the classes they’ve taken in school finally have context and purpose. They made clear the disconnect that occurs when students are taught so much in theory and never get to put it into practice. For them, the connection was made thanks to what Tremont offers.
In the course of the discussion, they also touched on important the immersion at Tremont was to the experience. Being able to focus on their projects was crucial to maintaining their motivation.
We adults sitting in on the presentations and discussion were impressed by level of work they accomplished. I think education director John DiDiego said it best when he commented that most of us never conducted research of that scale and understanding until at least college…if not graduate school. I can certainly vouch for myself on that count and it’s very telling on many fronts.
The main points I’ve come away with after my experience listening to these students are these:
- First and foremost, never underestimate the abilities of young students, especially when motivated.
- Second, by putting their studies into practice at an early age, they’re honing those skills before they forget them or lose interest.
- Third, by challenging them in a real-world setting, they get excited about learning and developing skills they’ll use the rest of their lives.
The important part about taking part in a program at a place like Tremont is that it’s done in a way that isn’t tedious. That’s the point of experiential education…realizing that learning about our world is invigorating and that all things we learn are the building blocks for what we decide to take on next.
Just do it!
The value of immersive, experiential education is immeasurable no matter what your age…it’s how learning becomes relevant.
Obviously I’m a huge fan of Tremont but it certainly isn’t the only place you can take part in a program of this sort. I will say, however, that what draws me back to Tremont time and time again is the culture of comraderie whether it’s a photography workshop, a naturalist class, or a school program. Across all of those programs, the Tremont staff foster an atmosphere of collaboration with the intent of elevating of all students, young and adult alike.
And that my friends, is why Tremont is a place everyone should visit…and at least now you know I’m not the only one who feels this way!
And now for your moment of green…
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