Blue Ridge Discovery Center staff and board members took a fried-chicken-fueled trip to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont to study them as a model for the future of BRDC.
Over the years, we have been introduced to examples of excellent nature centers across the United States but one, in particular, kept surfacing: Tremont. With a mission to deliver place-based education through inquiry and interest-driven techniques, Tremont falls directly in line with the goals of BRDC.
We packed up the Subaru, hit the highway and didn't stop until Gus's Famous Fried Chicken in Knoxville! Upon arriving at the Tennessee side of the Smoky Mountains we were greeted by the moss-laden Little River and steep valleys of Tremont. The campus itself is tucked privately across the river. There, we were generously hosted by President and CEO Jennifer Jones and Education Director John DiDeigo. We sat down in their map-covered library and discussed the nuances of a residential education center. Jen was kind enough to share the challenges and strategies of running a campus with 30 full-time staff and over 6,000 resident visitors a year. We discussed the core belief that we are all dedicated to, that education through interest-driven and inquiry-based models can change the world.
Before a family style dinner with a visiting school group, we got the grand tour of campus in crisp 15-degree weather! We took a short walk over two beautiful locust bridges and to fairy tale island. With frozen toes and nose, we returned indoors and joined in the rambunctious Tremont faculty developed "Acorn Ball" - a version of dodgeball with an educational twist.
That night the Tremont guides were kind enough to let us observe their astronomy program where we crouched on the frozen ground and discussed the constellations above.
After breakfast in town, we returned to Tremont and joined in the morning Geology hike to a frozen waterfall. We observed their teaching techniques in action by tagging along with three different school groups. While making our way over the rugged ridges the groups studied faults, slope aspect, and rock types. The hike finished with the "Tremont Challenge" - dipping one's face for ten seconds into the frigid pool below the waterfall. Many students made the hike back with icicles dangling from their hair.
The people, the campus and the students were all very inspirational. It was not hard to close my eyes and see the future of BRDC... hosting kids for overnight programs, exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains, and teaching them how to think independently and critically.
Many thanks to those at Tremont that welcomed us with open arms and who share our mission to better the world. Their enlightened view that the more institutions that are out there providing this type of service, the better the world will be was both refreshing and encouraging.
Tremont is such a spectacular place and getting it done! Pay them a visit if you have a chance!