Fourth graders at North Side Elementary School gasped in awe as Connie Deegan retrieved a corn snake resting in a nearby sack and held it up for them to see.
The students proceeded to ask questions about the snake and other snakes. Does it bite? Are any snakes blue? Is the corn snake poisonous? Deegan answered all their inquiries as the snake, named Snake Girl, coiled around her arm and flicked its tongue seeking its own information.
Ben Hill, a fourth grader at North Side, said he was more informed after hearing Deegan talk.
“I have learned that corn snakes are not venomous,” he said after he sat through a short presentation on the creature and actually got to touch it.
Hill was one of hundreds of students attending the first day of Conservation Camp Wednesday at Rotary Park. The camp continues today with different schools attending.
Eva Hunter, recycling marketing coordinator for Johnson City, said the camp is sponsored by Keep Johnson City Beautiful. This is the first year for the camp that featured opportunities for students to learn about different animals like the corn snake, fossils, recycling and caring for the environment.
“It’s just a wonderful opportunity to get the kids out of school into one of our city parks and introduce them to some topics that they may not get to see every day,” Hunter said.
Students spent the day at the park, moving between seven different displays featuring speakers from various local agencies, including Hands On! Regional Museum, Bays Mountain Park and Warriors Path State Park.
Before students split into groups to tour the displays, they all gathered under the park’s pavilion to hear a presentation by Keep America Beautiful trainer Elizabeth Reed, who told the students a humorous story about “Fred” the fish and how his river could become polluted with careless actions.
Hill said he learned how to better treat the environment from this presentation.
“I learned that (you) don’t throw trash on the ground,” Hill said. “Because if you did it might go into a river and it would kill all the fish in that river.”
Hunter said she wants the children to leave a good footprint, so the camp was designed to leave the kind of impression Hill got.
“We want to educate the next generation on what their natural resources are, conservation and preservation of those resources,” Hunter said.
Quiyana Whitney, also in fourth grade at North Side, learned Wednesday that there are 23 different kinds of snakes in Northeast Tennessee and that only two are poisonous.
Like Hill, she also learned the importance of keeping the environment healthy from Reed’s talk.
“I’ve learned not to put waste in the rivers and oceans and to try and at least help other people and to keep America beautiful,” Whitney said.
She also enjoyed learning outside the classroom because it was fun.
“A lot of my class thinks that if you have fun in learning, they’ll want to learn even more about it than just having paper” (assignments), she said.
Hunter said that too was part of the camp’s design.
“What kid doesn’t like a day out of school?” Hunter asked. “And they get to be in one of the prettiest parks in the city, Rotary Park.”
Around 200 students were bused to the camp on Wednesday and around 300 were expected today.
Only some of the city’s fourth grade students were able to attend the camp this year, but Hunter hopes to provide the experience to every fourth grader within a few years.
“It can turn in to be a huge event, but the whole thing is that Keep Johnson City Beautiful is offering the opportunity for a free field trip,” she said.
Keep Johnson City Beautiful is an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful and has been in existence since 2010. Activities offered through the program include the camp, the Urban Art Throwdown at the Blue Plum Festival, cigarette litter prevention, education in schools, community gardening and litter pickup.
“So we have a huge umbrella and many, many projects from that title and being affiliated with Keep America Beautiful,” Hunter said.