Fifth-graders in public schools across Avery County are receiving a mountain adventure right in their own classrooms and schoolyards thanks to the Eco Watch educational outreach program offered by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.
The program provides educational enrichment in line with the North Carolina Standard Course of Study for fifth-graders. After an initial pilot at Banner Elk Elementary School in the 2021-22 academic year, where student knowledge of related science concepts increased from a pre-program assessment average of 72 percent to a post-assessment average of 86 percent, the program has been expanded to four out of the five elementary schools within Avery County’s public school system for 2022-23.
“The material aligns with the subject matter covered on the N.C. End-of-Grade Science Test that begins in fifth grade,” Cassie Petrilla, education specialist with the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, said. “The program allows students to take hands-on outside experiences and relate them to curriculum taught in class. It creates a learning experience that helps apply science concepts and accommodate different learning styles.”
Eco Watch provides students with six in-depth interactions with one of the mountain’s expert naturalists, plus two field trips to Grandfather. A portion of these interactions focuses on weather and weather patterns, data-collection instruments, how to think like a scientist, how to make observations and how weather patterns affect the students and the world around them.
The other half of these interactions throughout the spring semester focuses on the ecosystem unit. The educator teaches students about the various important components of an ecosystem, including its physical properties as well as its biological properties – such as the producers, consumers and decomposers present. The students also learn about the different types of ecosystems and how everything in nature is connected.
“Everything we do is hands-on,” Petrilla said. “For the ecosystem unit, we do an activity called ‘Jays and Juncos’ that teaches how an ecosystem supports species without depleting its resources.”
Best of all, the students always get outside. During a recent Eco Watch visit at Banner Elk Elementary, Petrilla led the students in an exercise where they identified the types of clouds overhead and what they mean for the overall weather forecast. The students then used an anemometer and a windsock to study the direction of the wind and its speed.
During the weather unit, classes take their weather-recording capabilities to the next level as they visit Grandfather Mountain’s Mile High Swinging Bridge and record the daily weather reading from the National Weather Service reporting station near the bridge and at the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery. Students compare and contrast their weather data to the weather they observed at their school before leaving on the field trip.
In May, at the end of the academic year, the students will return to the park once more and get their hands dirty as they explore Grandfather Mountain’s own unique and biologically diverse ecosystems. Last spring, the students ventured along the Woods Walk Trail and searched for salamanders, dug up creepy crawlies and tried their hand at identifying the plants blooming on the mountain.
Afterward, the class headed to the Mildred the Bear Animal Habitats, where they learned all about the mountain’s resident cougars, black bears, otters, elk and eagles.
The Eco Watch program, coupled with the Wild Watch program, which provides similar outreach to first-graders in Avery and Watauga counties, offers a truly unique experience for Grandfather Mountain educators to support academic achievement, enrich learning in science and shape the next generation of conservationists and stewards of the natural world.
“My favorite thing about teaching these programs is seeing the kids every month and witnessing first-hand how much they’re learning and growing throughout the year,” Petrilla said. “You get to see the overall progress and see them grow in their appreciation for nature. Plus, now I will be able to see the first-graders grow up and see them again in fifth grade.”
The Eco Watch program has been partially funded by a grant from the WNC Bridge Foundation, which provides funds to address health challenges being faced by people across Western North Carolina. The foundation supports initiatives for children and youth that have a long-term impact on the health of communities, including improving academic outcomes by providing academic support and enrichments.
The nonprofit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. Learn more about Grandfather Mountain’s educational initiatives.