With the arrival of 456 third- through fifth-graders at the University of Georgia Rock Eagle 4-H Center in Eatonton on Oct. 10, Georgia 4-H marked its millionth student served by its environmental education program.
While Georgia 4-H may be best known for student leadership and skills development programs offered through UGA Extension's 4-H clubs, the organization has offered environmental education to youth across the Southeast since 1979. The programs are open to all Georgia students, whether they attend class at public or private schools or are home-schooled.
"The Georgia 4-H Environmental Education Program provides students the opportunity to experience science in the out-of-doors," said Arch Smith, director of Georgia 4-H. "Too many children have not been afforded the chance to experience nature. The 4-H Environmental Education Program provides hands-on learning in the natural environment at our five 4-H centers from the mountains to the piedmont to the sea."
Diane Davies, now a retired 4-H specialist, started Georgia 4-H environmental education in 1979 with a $300 annual budget and six months to establish the program.
She was inspired by her childhood growing in the foothills and mountains of Pennsylvania and the connections she made between her schoolwork and the time that she spent outside, she said.
"I wanted the students to understand what they were learning in the classroom was applicable to their lives," Davies said. "Children are naturally curious about nature, so why not use that to teach them? Don't separate them from the outdoors."
Now, 35 years later, the program serves more than 44,000 students annually at five locations across Georgia: Rock Eagle 4-H Center in Eatonton, Wahsega 4-H Center in Dahlonega, Fortson 4-H Center in Hampton, Burton 4-H Center on Tybee Island and Jekyll 4-H Center on Jekyll Island.
"It's absolutely incredible to think of the last 35 years and how it's grown," Davies said.
During the summer, staff at the 4-H centers help thousands of Georgia 4-H'ers make the most of the club's summer camp programs. When school is back in session, the school year staff deliver a research-based curriculum linked directly to the Georgia Performance Standards. They draw on Georgia's unique ecosystems to teach lessons in biology, environmental science and geology.
"Teachers and parents recognize the Georgia 4-H Environmental Education Program for bringing school concepts to life and connecting students to the natural world using nature as a classroom without walls," said Melanie Biersmith, the environmental education coordinator for Georgia 4-H.
While the programs emphasize the sciences, lessons also touch on history, language arts and mathematics and promote team building and communication skills.
"Our entire school has made the annual trip to (Rock Eagle) since the school opened in 2005," said Jennifer Hernandez, principal of the Marietta Center for Advanced Academics, a magnet school in the Marietta City Schools system. "Having the millionth camper makes it extra special for us because we see the great value in outdoor education as well as the other positive aspects the trip brings-creating a bonding experience for all that attend."