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Reflection on SAWS Fellowship

Eric Eaton, Teacher, Grade 8 Social Studies

Polk County Middle School, Mill Spring, NC

In the spring of 2023, I was honored to be named a N.C. State Kenan Fellow for 2023-2024. The Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership, part of the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology & Science at NC State, is a fellowship program to get educators connected to STEM-related businesses and nonprofits to create professional networks and, in turn, encourage our students to pursue STEM-related fields and create authentic learning opportunities in our classrooms. One aspect of the Kenan Fellowship is partnering with a mentor and organization to learn about them and create a project that will benefit the organization, educators, and students. I have been partnered with SAWS and Leandra Taylor as my mentor. My project and fellowship, generously supported by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, is to develop lessons and resources to engage students, particularly underrepresented groups, in environmental stewardship and outdoor recreation. I am a history teacher, but I have a calling to get more students involved in the outdoors and connect with our wilderness areas. With John Muir’s quote in my head, “the mountains are calling and I must go!” I went. Leandra partnered me with Nick Anderson and Blake Garrison for two awesome days in the field at Linville Gorge Wilderness and Shining Rock Wilderness. I must say that Blake and Nick’s passion for what they do is inspiring. At Linville, Nick started with a quick lesson on the cross-cut saw and then we hit the trail at Hawksbill and surrounding areas. We had great conversation (punctuated with stops to eat wild blueberries and F-16s screaming down the gorge) about why young people and underrepresented groups are not as engaged in the outdoors. His insight and experience helped enlighten me immensely. Even though I am a native North Carolinian, I have not been to the true Linville Wilderness area. The landscapes are astonishing and motivating. I tried to soak in as much as I could. My next field experience was with Blake Garrison at Shining Rock Wilderness. The 80+ degree day at Linville was traded for a rainy, blustery, 65 degree day. My guide for the day, Blake Garrison, gave me a new perspective on the data collection of the human impacts in wilderness areas. Lessons in “Leave No Trace” will be top priority with my students! Shining Rock is such a totally different landscape, but not without its “awe” factors as well. Blake also offered great conversation and insight into his journey to being a Wilderness Ranger.

To cap off my in-field experience, Leandra, Mark Townley from Kenan Fellows at NC State, and myself took a short hike to help me get on track with my product for SAWS and the Kenan Fellowship. I am so appreciative of Nick, Blake, and Leandra for taking their time and being willing to support my efforts with students in the public schools to become the next generation of wilderness stewards. I am looking forward to continuing to work with them and SAWS to develop materials and resources that will encourage engagement and access to wilderness and the outdoors for all people.

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