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Rocky Peebler’s wearing waders and a white T-shirt as he kneels on the shore of the Oconaluftee River. His boots are dripping from a recent foray into the river, and he’s picking through the critters wriggling across the surface of the net he and his classmates have just finished dragging through the water. It might not look like it, but Rocky is at school.

The Swain County Soil and Water Conservation District has been offering Conservation Field Day to fifth graders in Swain County since 1974. Though limited funds have kept the district from bringing the program to Cherokee for the past three years, this week it’s happening in both Cherokee and Bryson City. The program gives a total of 250 students the chance to review what they’ve learned in science class that year in a way that’s far more exciting than a pile of in-class worksheets and packets.

The 80 students from Cherokee Central have all day to rotate between seven stations, the topics ranging from beekeeping to fire management to the aquatic life station Rocky and his classmates are enjoying at the moment.

“They all have a favorite,” said Amanda Buchanan, district director of the conservation district. “Each kid is different. Some kids like being out in the creek, or the fire hose or the birds of prey.”

Some kinds of creatures indicate that a stream is clean and healthy, Western Carolina University professor emeritus Gary Smith tells the students. But others feed on substances that only occur in dirty water, like sewage. Emma Wolfe makes a face when she learns that piece of information, but she overcomes her usual anti-bug position to examine the net’s contents with her classmates.


Smoky Mountain News