Why just sit around in a classroom to learn about the environment when you can have a rich experience in a natural treasure? We believe that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more to teach about the environment than the best-written textbooks on the subject. We also believe that environmental education is about more than just enjoying breathtaking natural scenery; we are committed too to learning about other nearby parts of Appalachia and studying the long- and short-term consequences of how different lands are managed. In all of these cases, Maryville College, the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, and the Mountain Challenge Program all value the process of learning through direct experience. While there is some formal instruction and college-level reading built into the structure of this class, we believe the majority of students' experience should take place outdoors.
Central to this class is the theme that a connection to our natural environment is fundamental to who we are; it is a core component of our very identity. Appalachian people understand home to be inextricable from the mountains, the redbud and bloodroot blooming in spring, the songs of local birds, and sound of rushing water pulsing with life.
Immersing oneself in the experience of hiking or canoeing under one's own power allows us to interact with the natural world and it brings new insights into that environment. We believe that exercise can be significant not only for health benefits, but also for bringing new insights into understanding natural spaces.
Societies organize around our connections to nature. Whether we compete for natural resources or cooperate to obtain them, civilizations are more than a collection of laws and lofty ideals. Political policies, wars, social movements, and the way we interact personally with one another all make more sense when we better understand our relationships to food, water, energy, and other products of nature. In short, we believe that studying nature helps us to better understand our own world.