Classes of fifth graders in WNC and the Piedmont area will soon do something they haven’t done before. They’ll spend an entire instructional day outside, learning the state science curriculum through hands-on lessons taught by trained naturalists.
Together with their teachers, students will travel to nearby protected lands for a new kind of learning experience. They’re part of the first major expansion of the Muddy Sneakers program, which partners with public schools and local land agencies to bring science education to life.
Muddy Sneakers was born in 2007 in Brevard, North Carolina. From a pilot project with two Transylvania County schools, the program has grown to serve 25 schools in Western North Carolina and three more in upstate South Carolina. This year, a generous appropriation from the state has expanded the program to the Piedmont. From a newly opened field office in Salisbury, Muddy Sneakers will serve nearly 1,100 new students from five schools districts. Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody adds, “We fully support the idea of teaching science outside in nature. We have seen first-hand how much more students are engaged when they have the opportunity to use all of their senses. If possible, I would love to see every one of our 5th grade students eventually have the Muddy Sneakers experience and we are so pleased to have their Piedmont office in our community!”
As part of the same expansion effort, the Piedmont students will be joined by an additional 300 students in the Western part of the state marking one of the largest single-year expansions in the history of the organization’s home region. All told, the expansion will see Muddy Sneakers programming grow from 1,300 to 2,900 students. With each student participating multiple days, total instructional days is expected to surpass 17,500 for the year.
“Our goal is to turn the classroom inside out,” says Piedmont Program Director Elise Tellez. “We want to get all of these new students outside, learning about science, and connecting with the natural world in their local communities. Salisbury has been so welcoming and a great base from which to serve Rowan, Davidson, Montgomery, and Stanly Counties, along with Randolph County’s Asheboro City Schools.”
The program model guarantees each participating classroom a total of at least six full-day learning expeditions spread across the school year. Partnering with local municipalities, NC State Parks, US Forest Service, US Park Service, colleges and universities, and land trusts, Muddy Sneakers offers a diverse portfolio of protected natural areas as outdoor classrooms within thirty minutes of each school’s campus.
Muddy Sneakers Executive Director Ryan Olson shared, “We never refer to what we do as a ‘field trip’ but rather an extension of the student’s classroom. The emphasis on the local over the exotic, the existing over the contrived, is one of the elements that make the Muddy Sneakers approach so unique. That combined with small group instruction and repeat outdoor learning experiences within a single year combine to create a formula for student transformation. Students finish the year more confident in their understanding of science, more connected to their natural world and awakened to the science of nature that is happening all around them, all the time.”
This non-formal partnership approach to science education has had remarkable success in the state’s western region for almost a decade. It was that track record of impact that led the NC Legislature to award a single-year appropriation to test the program’s portability. Seeking out an underserved area of the state, Muddy Sneakers selected a five-county Piedmont program area rich in natural resources and high in identified student need, yet supported by conservation partners and local citizens willing to invest in “the joy of learning outside.”
“On behalf of all of us at Muddy Sneakers, we’d like to thank these communities for welcoming us so warmly,” says Olson. “We can’t wait to explore the Piedmont together.”