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Georgia Wild E-Newsletter

The bestest classroom: Smithgall Woods

Sheila Humphrey has a classroom without equal. About 3,000 children a year visit Smithgall Woods Regional Education Center, where Humphrey, as the center's educational coordinator, and others teach them about nature-based topics varying from animal adaptations to stream ecology.

"The kids when they're leaving say, 'This is the bestest field trip we've ever had,'" Humphrey said.

Thanks go to staff and setting. The center is part of Smithgall Woods-Dukes Creek Conservation Area, a 5,600-acre Heritage Preserve and state park restored from years of hydraulic mining and timber cutting by the late media entrepreneur and civic leader Charles Smithgall. The state acquired the property near Helen in a gift-purchase in 1994. At Smithgall, Blue Ridge foothills cloaked in forest bow to Dukes Creek, a top trophy trout stream.

Visitors can hike, bike, fish, hunt, camp, observe wildlife, attend a parks program and sample corporate-styled lodging.

But at the heart is the educational center. Started in 1997, this partnership with the Pioneer Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources and parks divisions reaches out to students and teachers at Smithgall and in area schools. The center is one of six that Wildlife Resources operates.

Humphrey logged nearly 19,000 contacts with children and adults last year. Most involved outreach programs such as show-and-tells on snakes and raptors, which are open to all ages. But with tight school budgets putting field trips at risk, Humphrey stresses the value of the educational structure, hands-on aspects and outdoors experience offered at Smithgall for third-grade and older students.

"All of our programs address the Georgia Performance Standards," she said. "So they can be covered in a really neat way that's going to be totally different from what the kids are getting in the classroom."

For example, an orienteering course incorporates math. A stream program explores water quality by seining for macro invertebrates. Another program delves into water velocity.

Teachers also can learn about ecosystems and earn credit in workshops. Options for on-site teacher-led programs are available. Smithgall's visitor center even has three birds of prey, snakes and a discovery room.

The price is right. Education center programs at Smithgall cost $3 per child; adults are free. The charge for an outreach trip within the Pioneer RESA region is $50.

As a retired teacher, Humphrey knows these are bargains. But the real benefit is seen in the children.

"It gives some of these kids the opportunity of coming out and doing things in nature that they don't have the chance to do," she said.

And in a place where nature can be experienced at its bestest.

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