On a recent drive through a remote, 200-acre portion of Chehaw property that we call “the back two-hundred,” I came across three Albany State students. One was holding a GPS device while the other two peered down a gopher tortoise burrow. One of the students was conducting a senior project mapping gopher tortoise burrows for her science class using Chehaw as an outdoor lab. The other two, judging by their smiles, were having a good time helping her.
Much is made our deficiencies in education, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). But when it comes to the science portion of STEM, our community is fortunate to have a unique facility with 750 acres of natural ecosystems, abundant wildlife populations, and an accredited zoo. Chehaw is so much more than just a field trip destination. It is an outdoor lab for our local students. Natural populations for potential study include gopher tortoise, Mexican free-tailed bats, and white-tailed deer. In the zoo, students can work with such exotic animals as cheetah, rhino, and meerkat.
Chehaw education programs are carefully designed to meet Georgia’s Common Core Curriculum standards for all grades from elementary through high school. Park educators also work with college students from Albany State University and Georgia Southwestern State on project-based programs that meet their requirements for class assignments. And the park recently renovated one of its unused residences into a home for visiting zookeeper interns. The five-month program hosts college graduates from as far away as Wisconsin and New York.
Education professionals have broken learning down to three basic types, and Chehaw excels at all three. Formal learning, which occurs in a structured and organized environment, might include classes taught to schools both at the park and in the school. Informal learning occurs during daily activities. It is not organized or structured and it is not intentional on the part of the learner. It is learning by accident and it is, perhaps, what we do best. Simply walking through the zoo and gazing at an exhibit or an animal results in learning, even if the learner is just there to have fun.
Somewhere in between is something called non-formal learning. This is learning that is intentional on the part of the learner, but it is part of some type of daily activity that is outside the formal learning environment. Non-formal learning includes all types of education programs with no specific curriculum, such as tours, informational signage, exhibits/interactive displays, and demonstrations. It might also include junior zookeeper programs, docent organizations and overnight experiences.
One of the park’s newest non-formal learning programs will begin this summer, thanks to a generous, five-figure donation from the Darcey foundation. If parents want to send their children to a unique, week-long, overnight summer camp, they will need to travel no further than Camp Chehaw
Those Albany State students have discovered that quality learning can take place outside the classroom, especially with a resource like Chehaw Park – a place where nature comes alive, one student at a time.