Students get hands-on with science

Rocky Peebler’s wearing waders and a white T-shirt as he kneels on the shore of the Oconaluftee River. His boots are dripping from a recent foray into the river, and he’s picking through the critters wriggling across the surface of the net he and his classmates have just finished dragging through the water. It might not look like it, but Rocky is at school. 


The Swain County Soil and Water Conservation District has been offering Conservation Field Day to fifth graders in Swain County since 1974. Though limited funds have kept the district from bringing the program to Cherokee for the past three years, this week it’s happening in both Cherokee and Bryson City. The program gives a total of 250 students the chance to review what they’ve learned in science class that year in a way that’s far more exciting than a pile of in-class worksheets and packets. 

The 80 students from Cherokee Central have all day to rotate between seven stations, the topics ranging from beekeeping to fire management to the aquatic life station Rocky and his classmates are enjoying at the moment. 

“They all have a favorite,” said Amanda Buchanan, district director of the conservation district. “Each kid is different. Some kids like being out in the creek, or the fire hose or the birds of prey.”

Some kinds of creatures indicate that a stream is clean and healthy, Western Carolina University professor emeritus Gary Smith tells the students. But others feed on substances that only occur in dirty water, like sewage. 

Emma Wolfe makes a face when she learns that piece of information, but she overcomes her usual anti-bug position to examine the net’s contents with her classmates. 

“Fifth graders, they have enthusiasm that college kids never have,” Smith said. “They don’t know to be cool. They get excited by being in the water and collecting critters, and I think they remember this.”

Remembering what a corn snake looks like up close and personal has some intrinsic value, as does remembering the names of the fish that swim in the water or the role bees play in pollinating orchards and gardens. But it’s also important for students to remember these lessons when they sit for their end-of-grade tests as their fifth grade year concludes. For Cheryl Saavedra, a teacher at Cherokee Central, there’s no better way to prepare for the test. 

“I love it,” she said. “The kids are excited, they’re having a blast and they’re learning. Truly, truly enjoy it.”

“We learned about fish, what fish are eating and the eggs,” said Rossi Wachacha, quickly rattling off a list when asked what he took away from the day. “We also learned how to tell them apart from each other.”

But the day has value even beyond any gain in standardized test scores. It gives students a glimpse into how the natural world works and how their actions affect it. 

“I think it’s just kind of stewardship in action,” said Julie Townsend, a National Park Ranger who works in the Oconaluftee area. “Everyone that’s here is here to teach stewardship and awareness of our impact on the planet.”

And there’s no better way to do that than by letting everyone’s hands get a little dirty, at least according to Richard Harvey, who has 12 years of teaching fifth grade in Swain County under his belt. This year, though, he’s taking a sabbatical and working as a National Park Teacher Ranger Teacher. He came with Townsend to help with what he considers to be the most important kind of learning. 

“It’s important for kids to have experiential learning,” he said, “and that’s really what this day is about.”

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