Area fourth graders attend ninth annual Conservation Camp at Sycamore Shoals

Photo by Dave Boyd
Conservation Camp Betty Dyer, with a little help from Pedro the iguana, talks to fourth grade students about conservation of the rain forest and how it effects the animal population during Conservation Camp 2003, held Tuesday and Wednesday at Sycamore Shoals State Park.

By Julie Fann
star staff
On Tuesday and Wednesday, area fourth-graders are attending the ninth annual Conservation Camp at Sycamore Shoals State Park. Designed to help kids learn more about wildlife and the environment, the camp features the stuff kids love, from Pedro the iguana to animal skulls.
"This isn't just all about protection and not touching anything. They're learning that we can wisely use the resources that we have and not abuse them ... We're trying to educate future decision-makers," said Roy Settle, coordinator for the Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development District (RCD) which organizes the event with the Carter and Johnson County Soil Conservation Districts.
Approximately 700 fourth-graders from Elizabethton City Schools, Carter County Schools and Johnson County Schools have attended the camp every year since 1995 when the program began. Students travel to 18 different outdoor stations to learn from volunteers and agency professionals about a variety of environmental topics.
"They're learning about wildfire protection, soil, agriculture, household hazardous waste and how you can use alternative chemicals instead of some of the harsher things," Settle said.
The information students learn hopefully prepares them, in an outdoor environment that is fun, hands-on and challenging, to be responsible stewards of the Earth. For example, at Station 5, titled "Wildlife and Skulls", kids get to examine real animal skulls and learn how teeth and skull shape help scientists determine the type of animal and the foods that animal typically eats. And in Station 1, kids learn about composting - how worms and microbes can turn organic waste into useable soil for homes, gardens and schools.
Students also learn about the water cycle, aquatic insects and how they predict water quality, tree identification, butterflies, forest fire prevention and air pollution. They even learn how to camp with only minimal impact to the environment.
According to Settle, fourth-graders are more receptive to conservation camp because they are old enough to understand concepts without the pressures of puberty and adolescent development that often deter curiosity and apprehension.
"It is an age where they are not to the point that it's not cool to know the right answer," said Settle.
The camp receives much of its support from volunteers in the community who donate their time and knowledge. However, Settle said the camp is careful to stress scientific fact over personal ideology to avoid the spread of misinformation.
"We really stress on making sure that, if somebody is out here talking about something, that it is scientifically fact based; that there's not something that's too extreme and more tied to emotion and not fact," Settle said.
In previous years, conservation camp has been held in the spring, but rainy weather and conflict with Gateway and TCAP exams led organizers to hold the camp in the fall this year. "Teachers tell us that, by doing it in the fall, they can refer back to some of the information (in the spring). It lines up with state curriculum requirements," Settle said.
Other organizations that support conservation camp are the USDA Forest Service, the University of Tennessee, Tennessee Valley Authority, Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, and the Tennessee Division of Forestry.
"The only reason we can do this is because of different agencies that come and help us and many volunteers. They're not paid. Pat Duggs has been here every year that we've done this, and she's a volunteer with 4-H clubs here in the county," Settle said.
Zachary Hyder, who attends Happy Valley Elementary School, said his favorite part of conservation camp was learning about snakes and iguanas, and learning how to build a fire without too much impact on the environment.
"You should put dirt on top of rocks before you build a fire so that it won't turn the rocks black," Hyder said.