On any given day, along a tree-canopied path in Kentucky, the tiny footsteps of more than a dozen preschoolers crunch through the fallen leaves and twigs—young eyes being introduced to an environment they may have seen only on television or in books. On another day, those feet may belong to middle school children, or even high school and college students.
“We’ve taken thousands of school kids through here,” said Dr. Gordon Weddle, director of Clay Hill Memorial Forest and a professor of biology at Campbellsville University. “A lot of these kids have never been in a fairly large-sized woods.”
But the goal is more than just showing them trees and woodland life. The mission of 158-acre Clay Hill Memorial Forest in Taylor County is to teach students of all ages environmental sustainability; to provide an authentic, natural laboratory for research; and to promote conservation. “Anything we do here should exemplify environmental living,” Weddle said. “I don’t think that the kids today get outside enough. We try to expose them to environmental ethics. That’s a big order to try and deliver in two or three hours. But I believe what we do here has an impact on them.”
However, that impact is not limited to Taylor County. Eastern Kentucky University manages two forest areas aimed at providing environmental
literacy to students—the Maywoods Environmental and Educational Laboratory, located 22 miles south of Richmond, and Lilley Cornett Woods in Letcher County.
“We have to use natural resources, but it’s the way we use them that’s important,” said Dr. Melinda Wilder, director of EKU’s Division of Natural Areas. “We often have comments from the high school students who toured Lilley Cornett about how much they enjoy the old-growth forest, and then we talk about how we can use these resources with sustainability.”
Wilder said her division uses Lilley Cornett’s old-growth forest to show
students and visitors what a natural forest and ecosystem look like before the influence of man. “We show them what a healthy ecosystem looks like and then what a degraded system looks like—how they are different and what can be done to improve them,” Wilder said.
Maywoods is classified as a 1,700-acre wildlife area covered in second-growth oak and pine forests. It is frequented by the university’s classes and other educational programs. It’s also a favorite field trip destination for area schools.
Getting students outside, teaching them the environmental impact humans have on nature and showing them ways to “maintain, restore or improve” the natural environment are goals for all three natural “laboratories” and the mission of the Kentucky Environmental Literacy Plan, which Wilder helped develop. The plan was adopted in December 2011 by the Kentucky Board of Education.
Weddle said her division uses Clay Hill to make lasting impressions on students. “We show them chestnut stumps and ask them what would they lose if they lost that tree, and it was gone and never here,” Weddle said. “We let them do hands-on things: collect water samples and see what they get. We show them aquatic insects, adaptations that exist there in that insect.”
Weddle and Wilder both believe that exposing students to what their forests can provide can help positively affect the future of our environment.
— Jackie Hollenkamp Bentley