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Unplugging and Reconnecting with Nature: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and UT

The Smoky Mountain Field School and Summer Junior Naturalist Programs are beginning soon. Click here to learn more.

By Nichole Stevens 

400x300 man writingThe University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT) is nestled between the Cumberland Plateau and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, less than an hour away. Proximity to the National Park gives UT the opportunity to engage students and community members in hands-on, and boots-on, education in the natural setting of the Smoky Mountains and a unique chance to study its ecosystem.

UT’s partnership with the park is a mutually beneficial one that supports public access, appreciation, financial support, preservation and stewardship of the park while providing essential educational, research, and service-learning opportunities for UT students, faculty and community members in the country’s most visited national park.

Since 1978, there has been a cooperative agreement between UT and the Park Service to allow for interactive learning with the UT Non-Credit’s Smoky Mountain Field School, an award-winning program that provides students and community members with the opportunity to explore and learn about one of the nation’s premier wilderness regions.

The Field School offers a wide variety of courses from March through November, with classes held mostly on Saturdays, rain or shine, often utilizing one or more of the park’s 900 miles of trails. Since the Field School is a non-credit program, community members as well as UT students and faculty can take advantage of this rare opportunity to learn about bio-diversity, hike the park trails with experts and meet people who share a mutual interest.

Joel and Kathy Zachry have been instructors for over thirty years, and are now program directors for the Field School as well as co-owners and travel guides for Great Outdoor! Travel Adventure, a small outdoor travel company.

Joel Zachry said he and his wife wanted to focus not just on the academic side that the Field School has to offer, but also create an enjoyable learning environment that provides good science-based knowledge and a sense of adventure.

“We’re all living beings and we must be conservation minded and take care of our surrounding. If they perish, we perish,” said Joel Zachry. “That is my perspective, as a biologist. I feel very strongly that we have to work at getting people outdoors. We’re losing connections with the very thing that sustains us.”

400x200-salamander“A common thread with all our instructors (in the Field School) is they have a passion in sharing their topics,” said Kathy Zachry. “They love sharing and that’s evident when you go to someone’s course. We are located adjacent to this fabulous natural resource, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Field School is one way for people to experience it.”

The Field School  more recently has begun to reach out to young people in the community through the implementation of a Junior Naturalist Program, where middle school-aged youth can learn about plants, animals, safety and Appalachian culture.

“We’re always looking for better ways to connect with the public,” said Joel Zachry. “We think this year is going to be a really good year and we are excited about the Junior Naturalist Program.”

The Field School allows community members to sponsor a child for the Junior Naturalist Program as well, which allows kids with an interest in learning and whose families cannot afford the fee to be able to participate in the program.

“Explore, learn and enjoy. Those are really the main goals of the classes we teach. Want the student to learn about the topic while exploring the Park and have an enjoyable time while doing so,” Kathy Zachry said.

UT and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont both offer field-based programs for basic training in Southern Appalachian ecology, where enrollees spend a weekend living and learning inside the park.

“We support each other rather than compete,” Joel Zachry said about the many academic partnerships with the park.

“It is becoming very easy to totally miss nature as part of our existences,” said Kathy Zachry. “This (partnership with the park) gives people the opportunity to unplug and go experience it.”

Other partnership programs with the Smokies include the Great Smoky Mountains Regional Project, which provides support for researchers at all levels who study the Smokies and the surrounding communities and explore the region’s rich, wild flora, fauna, ecology, cultural and natural history.

UT is also apart of the National Park Service through the Southern Appalachian Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (SA-CESU). It is a group of federal and private sector partners who have joined together to promote and provide research, technical assistance and education to federal land management, environmental and research agencies in Southern Appalachia.


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and UT was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.