Reconnecting Students with the Real World

09/03/2009  |  PEGGY A. NIMS
outdoor adventures

“The Hidden River Cave was awesome! I really enjoyed getting muddy in the river and crawling through tight spaces.”

“It was so natural. It felt as if nobody has ever stepped foot there except for me and my group. It was just us with our caving helmets giving us light as we walked through the terrain. It was somewhat challenging but in a very good way. After getting through the tour it has a way of making you feel like you can take on the world.”

Hidden River Cave is the American Cave Museum’s living exhibit, and my classroom. As an environmental educator, these observations from some of my students are truly music to my ears. 

Having been both a formal and non-formal educator for 30 years, I’m always looking for teaching strategies that will challenge and inspire my students to become life-long learners. As citizens of our fast-paced 21st century, today’s students are immersed in the technology of learning and adept at manipulating their personal environments. Yet, these same very bright and talented young people often feel disconnected with the real world in which they live, learn, work and play.  

This disconnect is robbing our children of their personal stories, their cultural heritage and their sense of wonder. Knowing how to search the world wide web and learning the basic facts of science, math, language arts and social studies is both necessary and commendable. Discovering these facts through experiential learning and applying this new learning to their own lives is real-life learning.

Often students complain about the irrelevance of classroom instruction to their futures. Consequently, many become apathetic learners who study for tests. How do we facilitate the learning environment so that our students grasp not only the necessary knowledge but also the magic of learning? One strategy is to reconnect students with the incredible world beyond the classroom. Interdisciplinary curricula and collaborative instruction enable classroom teachers to facilitate the learning process and empower students to discover their sense of place and recharge their sense of wonder. As the saying goes, “We can hear about it and forget. We can look at it and remember.  But when we can do it, then we understand!”

In an economy of  budget cuts and limited travel budgets where does one find these magical places of discovery?  In south central Kentucky, teachers of all ages and multiple disciplines find willing educational partners around the corner and down the street, in state and national parks, and in state-of-the art museums. By expanding the world of their students to include special places that they can visit again and again with their families, these teachers engage their students in those serendipitous teaching moments which promote relevant instruction, self-confidence and a respect for others.

Certainly, there is no substitute for that “true caving experience with headlights and helmets and mud.” However, many natural science and history museums now provide hands-on exhibits that allow students to use their senses of sight, touch, smell, hearing and even taste, to discover something new about themselves and their environment. Utilizing the latest technologies, today’s museums appeal to students’ fascination with gadgetry, while stimulating their imaginations as they watch sharks swimming overhead, hear the sound of a beating heart or smell a bacteria once used as an antiseptic.

Interpretive museum staff such as those at the American Cave Museum are uniquely qualified to lead these inquisitive learners on their journey of discovery. Many museum educators are former classroom teachers. All are enthusiastic learners themselves, spell-binding storytellers and living historians. Today’s museums are not designed for a quick walk-through look, but for savoring the moment, opening minds, stimulating that “WOW” moment when students make that personal connection with what they’ve learned in the classroom.

In 1994, I discovered such a place — Hidden River Cave — in my own back yard. Having grown up in Horse Cave, Kentucky, I didn’t know that this wonderland was literally beneath my feet. Closed for 50 years because of groundwater pollution, Hidden River Cave was restored by the American Cave Conservation Association and became the highlight of the American Cave Museum, Kentucky’s official karst (cave) museum. Since that time, I have repeatedly taken my own family and students to this amazing place — one of the nation’s greatest environmental success stories.

As a certified environmental educator, I continually seek to personalize the instructional environment so that students will see first-hand the relationship between the classroom and the real world around them.  American Cave Museum staff facilitate small group activities that get students up and moving to “see” like a bat, build their own cave models, mold a pinch pot, design their own petroglyphs, and dig for hidden artifacts. An off-trail caving adventure through Hidden River Cave, a living extension of the museum, instills in students a sense of achievement as they develop teamwork and leadership skills. All learning centers are affordable and aligned with national educational standards.

So, get out; get moving; start reconnecting your students with the real world of learning! When students hear about it, see it and touch it, they won’t forget. When they do it, they will understand.

Peggy A. Nims is Education Director, American Cave Conservation Association. For more information call 270.786.1466, e-mail [email protected] or visit
Comments & Ratings