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Highlands Biological Station earns exceptional environmental education program award

By Geoff CantrellPatrick Brannon

Patrick Brannon

The Environmental Educators of North Carolina has presented its 2021 award for exceptional environmental education programs to a specialist with Highlands Biological Station, an installation of Western Carolina University, for STEM outreach (science, technology, engineering and math) to regional schools.

Patrick Brannon, outreach education specialist at Highlands Biological Station, gives programs almost daily for schools and other community groups across Western North Carolina. Many take place in a classroom, while others are in remote field locations within the Nantahala National Forest or along the Appalachian Trail.

EENC is a nonprofit membership group for professional development, networking and promotion of excellence among environmental educators in the state. The group provides resources, training, events and a certification program.

The award recognizes a program, education center, organization, partnership or educational system that exemplifies excellence in environmental education, and was given during the organization’s 30th annual conference, held this year Sept. 10-11, in Arden.

Highlands Biological Station offers more than 50 programs, ranging from “show and tell” sessions for youngsters to immersive field labs for high school students, as well as workshops for informal and traditional educators. Classes are designed to meet curriculum requirements of state science essential standards.

“For example, each autumn Highlands Biological Station helps leads a field lab for eighth grade students from Summit Charter School in Cashiers, as part of their watersheds study unit,” said Brannon. “In this lab, students hike sections of the AT and perform chemical water testing at various stream locations with their teacher. As a supplement, I teach them how to conduct surveys of salamander species and macroinvertebrates as biological indicators of water quality.”

Highlands Biological Station was also successful in adapting nearly all its programs into a virtual format during the pandemic, including field courses. Although students could not collect organisms themselves, they were shown specially created videos demonstrating techniques. Teachers used digital platform opportunities to have the station “visit” their classes, and consequently annual service statistics remained consistent with in-person programming years. In 2020, the station served more than 10,000 students through 250-plus STEM outreach programs, with 70 percent held virtually, for 48 different schools across 13 regional counties. The addition of virtual programming also has allowed expansion to include schools as far away as Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville.

For more information about the Highlands Biological Station, including its nature center and botanical garden programs, visit

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