Online Professional Learning and
Technical Assistance for
21st Century Community Learning Centers

Distance Learning with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Y4Y recently chatted with Susan Sachs, Education Branch Coordinator at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Jessie Snow Neely, Education Park Ranger. Their park has been actively engaged in developing young citizen scientists in the two states it straddles — Tennessee and North Carolina — even through the pandemic. They were good enough to share a little about their most popular opportunities for students through their 21st CCLC partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley and the Swain County School District in North Carolina. [Podcast]

Y4Y: Susan, let’s start with you. I want to strongly encourage our listeners to check out all the links you have provided Y4Y about your engaging programs, but I’d love for you to give us just a quick overview of the essential topics that your rangers explore with students.

SS: We are very place-based in our education programs at the Smokies. We want students to develop a connection to what makes the park special while having fun and learning. Our programs highlight the rich biodiversity of our park by focusing on charismatic critters such as salamanders and often-overlooked groups such as snails, lichens, and land and water macro-invertebrates. These groups are so important to the health of our ecosystem, and many of them are bio-indictors, so we can tell the story of how important it is to monitor them, what their threats are and how we as a society can reduce those threats.

Y4Y: These are such advanced, yet also basic, scientific principles for kids. Jessie, you’re working with kids this summer. Tell us a little about what this looks like in practice with opportunities like your Stream Splasher program.

JSN: One of the key pieces of the Stream Splashers program, for us, is giving the kids an opportunity for exploration. Many of the kids are coming to the Smokies for the first time, and it’s definitely the first time they’ve been able to put on a pair of waders, grab a net and discover the tiny creatures living in our streams that indicate the quality of our water. The excitement of discovery can help kids move past their uncertainty in doing something new and unfamiliar. And for the kids to be successful in this program, they need to work in teams. So, as facilitators, we get the chance to watch the kids naturally move past their fears by encouraging each other and learning new things about the world around them. There’s nothing that compares with the memories made for these kids working in person, together.

Y4Y: The whole country is delighted to be back in person, no doubt. But, Susan, I know that you had mixed opportunities for that during the pandemic. Can you share a little about how you adapted the park’s education efforts virtually?

SS: The Smokies is a park that straddles two states, half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina. During COVID, the states had different responses to the pandemic. North Carolina went all virtual, and Tennessee was mostly operating on a hybrid schedule that was eventually adopted in North Carolina as well. We quickly realized we wanted to provide support to teachers and parents who were suddenly finding themselves being homeschool teachers. With our close park partners, we quickly set up the website with asynchronous content that could be used by anyone when it met their needs. There are downloadable activities and videos that focus on the three E’s — Explore, Entertain and Escape. Additionally, we wanted to offer ranger-led virtual field trips that highlighted some of our favorite critters in the park but also were interactive for kids, allowing them to explore in their own backyards the way we do in the park. We jumped right into creating video content to go along with our ranger-led field trips. We learned a lot about creating engaging and accessible videos, mostly through trial and error. We started off by using our camera phones and realized quickly that we needed external microphones, tripods and stabilizers — and training on how to make the videos accessible. Thankfully, we had our 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant through the National Environmental Education Foundation and a separate grant from the National Park Foundation and Friends of the Smokies so we could buy the equipment to make professional-looking videos. Many of these videos are used at pre-site lessons to set up the ranger-led virtual visit with the students.

Y4Y: We love hearing about those “lessons learned” coming out of the pandemic — it’s very much in the spirit of continuously improving programming! Jessie, can you share a little about how those ranger-led pre-visit activities enhance your students’ experiences?

JSN: Providing the kids with some context to what they will be learning in the park makes what they do during their park experiences more meaningful. If the students already are familiar with the topics we address in our programs, they can come in with more confidence. Also, this allows them to take what they learn in the park and connect it with their experiences outside of the park, hopefully making their time with us all the more relevant to them.

Y4Y: Not every 21st CCLC program is lucky enough to be close to a national park. Do you have any advice for program directors who want to offer their students similar outdoor opportunities without that resource?

SS: That’s a great question. Fortunately, there are many state and county parks and nonprofit groups that offer environmental education programs in most areas of the country. There are also now a huge number of national parks offering distance learning programs. You can bring the Smokies to your students through distance learning. This past summer, we did a series of 17 programs with schools in the Unified Los Angeles School District. These programs are all designed so students can learn about the Smokies but also explore their own area to find what is special in their neighborhood. In our terrestrial invertebrate program, we show video clips of some unusual soil-dwelling critters. During the program, students go outside for 10 minutes to explore and take photos or make drawings of ground critters they observe. They come back to the video program and share them with the ranger.

JSN: One of the biggest takeaways I’ve had in working to develop successful programs is making sure we are building real, strong and lasting partnerships with the groups we work with. Once there is mutual trust, we can all focus on the kids and provide better programs. And of course, I would be remiss not to mention knowing and using the other resources available to us. For example, in addition to the Smokies, East Tennessee is home to many NPS [National Park Service] sites — including Andrew Johnson Historical Site and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park — with talented staff who generously provide additional programming at their locations to the students who participate in our Smokies programs. This allows kids to see and experience their public lands more broadly.

Check out these Great Smoky Mountains National Park resources:

Distance Learning – Great Smoky Mountains National Park (U.S. National Park Service)

Parks as Classrooms: Terrestrial Macro-Invertebrates (video) – Learn online and outside with park ranger-led adventures, activities and resources for students of all ages.


Jessie Snow Neeley is an Education Park Ranger working on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She is part of a team providing curriculum-based programs to students in the communities surrounding the park.


Susan Sachs is the Education Branch Coordinator in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She has been a National Park Service Park Ranger since 1991 when she started as a seasonal employee. She has been in the Smokies for 23 years and still gets excited every time she explores the park with teachers and students.