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Students at St. Clair County’s Camp Sumatanga, take part in a unique Environmental Education Program lead by educator Helena Uber-Wamble.

Learning the difference between a Loblolly Pine and a Shortleaf Pine is a good thing. Learning what role the trees play in our local environment is even better. At St. Clair County’s Camp Sumatanga, nature’s lessons make up its unique Environmental Education Program.

The program was started in the fall of 2003 as a pilot program for teachers, providing them the opportunity to enhance their curriculum by giving students an up-close and first-hand look at nature. The 1700-acre camp and 55-acre lake, nestled on the side of Chandler Mountain and in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is less than an hour drive for the majority of the county but feels disconnected because its surroundings have been relatively unchanged through the years. The program is based on the Alabama Course of Study, allowing both teachers and students a superior perspective of nature while reinforcing the same lessons found on standardized testing in all schools. “Environmental education does more than bring students to the great outdoors, it connects them to it and makes them more aware of their surroundings. Being in the outdoors helps students exercise while learning and having fun. Nature itself is an entirely new experience for many,” Helena Uber-Wamble said. Uber-Wamble is originally from Ohio and has been the Environmental Education Coordinator at Sumatanga since 2004. “Students who think they are going to be eaten by a mountain lion when they first get here are usually the first to be in line for the hikes into the woods before they leave,” she laughed.

The three goals of the program:

1. Providing students with opportunities to discover the wonders of their community and the local environment

2. Thinking critically about environmental issues

3. Developing a sense of place related to environmental stewardship

Classes like “Stream Ecology,” “The Great Sumatanga Fossil Hunt” and “Mapping Your Day” are just three of the classes offered during the typically one- or three-day program. The stream ecology class teaches students about many aspects of stream life including how to determine water quality after identifying different types of microorganisms in the stream. Students wade and scramble around the stream, turning over rocks in hopes of finding these microinvertebrates. “In today’s generation, it’s hard to peel kids away from computers and the TV. It is my job to help them understand that the natural resources are not always endless. It’s great if we can show them how not be a throw-away society,” Uber-Wamble stressed.

The fossil hunt takes place on, well, Fossil Hill. Nearly 325 million years ago the region was underwater and left throughout the area, especially on the hill, is a variety of fossils like a type of marine invertebrates called Crinoids. Uber-Wamble said no matter how many groups of students pass through, the next always finds fossils. “We had a teacher ask us how early we got up to put the fossils out,” she laughed.

The mapping class teaches students to read a map using a compass. After discussing the different parts of the compass and pace, a course is set up for the students to try and navigate. Coordinates are given and at each stop a word awaits. Those who follow the right coordinates will have an entire sentence when they are finished.

It is about nature and the environment at Camp Sumatanga. Uber-Wamble said now more than ever these lessons are important. “With the tight economic situation, more and more people are relying on recycling. Thrift stores are seeing more business then ever before and streets are being cleaned up because people want to cash in cans. If everyone thought of nature in those same terms of being in a crisis then having rain barrels at your house to water your flowers would be second nature along with building homes that utilize passive solar energy and more trees would be planted not only for shade, but for wind breaks and to help prevent erosion,” Uber-Wamble said. “We cannot teach all this in one session at camp but we can generate interest for the students who want to learn more about saving this precious environment that we have in our own backyards.”

By expanding student’s comfort zones and making them think about how their choices affect the earth, Sumatanga’s Environmental Education Program has educated thousands of children from the state and surrounding counties.

Not every student loves the woods and insects when they leave, but Uber-Wamble said many find a new respect for creatures and plants that they share the earth with. “This is a huge step toward the stewardship of the earth and all its beings. No one’s experience is totally the same in nature, but the benefits always outweigh the negatives. This is why I love environmental education. It’s not just about knowing the name of a tree, but respecting all that tree does to benefit the world around me.”

For more information call (256) 538-9860 or email TheEECenter@sumatanga.org.

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