Starr Weems’ students live in a state that ranks at the top in biodiversity, childhood obesity and unhappiness. Her answer: Get them outside.
Scientists refer to the Alabama farmland surrounding Ardmore High School as “America’s Amazon,” but Starr’s survey of students revealed that 56% of them spend less than three hours per week outside — including school sports practices and PE classes. According to her, they didn’t know what they have in their literal backyard. A Fund for Teachers fellowship helped change that.
Last summer, Starr used her grant to earn Wilderness First Responder certification on the Appalachian Trail and, afterwards, complete a four-day hike across Icelandic glaciers, geothermal hot spots, lava fields, mountains and rivers. Throughout it all, she created a sketchbook to serve as an example for students in her Naturalist Studies program.
“This experience taught me how to manage student risk in remote settings, negotiate a wide variety of landscapes and weather conditions, and intertwine art and culture with the environment,” said Starr. “Now, if we’re learning about plants, we hike into the forest to find them. If we are exploring how cypress trees grow in water, we kayak out to see them. If we are studying geology, we get out in the rocks and go bouldering and rappelling.”
Starr sees students becoming more appreciative of the state’s natural resources, making them more likely to be stewards of their global hotspot of biodiversity that supports potential careers in forestry, tourism and agriculture.
“My students are next in line to be caretakers of this rare world treasure, but they won’t be inspired to care for it if they don’t feel a connection to it,” she said. “In helping them engage with our natural world, I’m helping prepare them to make wise decisions as future decision makers. People protect what they love.”