TYBEE ISLAND — A math teacher and a physical education coach take long strides onto the sandy ground from the bottom steps of two yellow school buses that have “Bremen City Schools” printed on the side. It’s still early March, but the air is already warm and stuffy; A gentle breeze stirs the Spanish moss hanging from live oak trees overhead.
A moment later, 64 middle school students step off the buses and take in their surroundings at the Burton 4-H Center on Tybee Island.
To the south, a winding dock sprawls across the brackish swamp, and the sun glitters on the water as it stretches towards the horizon. To the east, the trees on the edge of the offshore island open up to the Atlantic Ocean. At the northern end of the center, special habitats offer native animal species a home.
The exuberant students and their companions from Atlanta’s western suburbs breathe in the mixed scent of salt and fresh water from the swampland that surrounds them, ready for a three-day adventure with the Georgia 4-H Environmental Education program on the Georgia coast. Every young person who participates in a field study at the Burton 4-H Center learns the narrative of coastal ecology—and every student becomes part of the center’s own narrative.
The Georgia 4-H Environmental Education program provides a world-class learning experience to more than 42,000 students each year. Six 4-H centers stretch from the mountains to the sea, providing year-round residential and day-learning opportunities for students from public, private, and home schools. Experienced environmental education teachers in each of the centers enthusiastically offer a comprehensive overview of the history and habitats of the region and use nature as a living laboratory.
Burton 4-H Center leaders hold up signs to help seventh graders find their assigned teams—each student is either a sea turtle, manatee, raccoon, osprey, or alligator for the next three days. These native species and dozens more are covered in the Coastal Critters class, which each crew will attend during their stay. Many species live locally and are cared for by specially trained staff with a deep respect for the local wildlife.
Each group rotates through several life science courses including Salt Marsh Ecology, Beach Ecology and Shark Dissection. In the salt marshes, two tiny crabs scurry over the toes of a seventh grader, whose eyes widen in awe at the close encounter with marine life. Everyone jumps up and down at the same time to feel the vibrations created in the spongy soil beneath them—a mixture of water, sediment, and vegetation that supports hundreds of plant and animal species. Teachers and students alike gain an appreciation for the ecosystems that make the coast unique and they leave with an understanding of what they can do to protect these fragile systems.
Since its inception in 1979, more than 1 million students have participated in the Georgia 4-H Environmental Education program. Teaching opportunities across the six centers follow a nature-focused curriculum that includes team building, outdoor skills, ecology, and living history. A significant partnership with educational leadership in Georgia and surrounding states enables children to understand the natural world around them in ways not possible within classrooms but aligned with current state educational standards.
As dusk approaches on the second night of the Bremen school on Tybee Island, the sea cow crew have finished their kitchen patrol duties while the ospreys play beach volleyball in the common area — at least half of them are wearing bright squid hats they bought from the center’s gift shop . Nearby, three students sit in the stands excitedly discussing the dolphin they saw from the beach earlier that afternoon and exchanging thoughts on future careers in coastal defense.
The math teacher, the physical education teacher and five other educators from the Bremen middle school talk to their students while the sun sinks below the tree line.
“Yes, we have to go back to school tomorrow,” they assure their charges, who long for the experience to last as long as possible.
As the school buses rolled through the gates of Burton and headed back to Bremen, each person stepped aboard with a deeper connection to the earth and the ecosystems they share.