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Governor’s Scholars get hands-on ‘Pioneer Experience’

Melissa Nipper • Jul 20, 2019 at 10:30 AM

JOHNSON CITY – Creating a shelter, digging latrines and fence-building are not the typical summer vacation experiences for high school students.

However, a group of 24 high school juniors and seniors from all across the state took part in a unique hands-on simulation laboratory that taught them what it was like for the first settlers of Northeast Tennessee. The experience was part of East Tennessee State University’s Governor’s School for the Scientific Exploration of Tennessee Heritage.

As part of their four-week Governor’s School program, the students traveled to the College of Public Health’s Niswonger VILLAGE at ETSU’s Eastman Valleybrook campus for a unique Tennessee history course that tasked them with creating a healthy living environment in the wilderness – just as the first settlers had to do in the 1700s.

“The three-day Pioneer Experience encourages students to go beyond what they have read in books, and to learn important lessons and skills by literally getting their hands dirty,” said Dr. Michael Stoots, associate professor in ETSU’s College of Public Health and the leader of the Pioneer Experience.

Using tools and resources that would have been available to the pioneers, the students had three projects: build a shelter from logs, clay and sod; dig a latrine to create a sanitary living space; and clear a small garden, plant crops and build a fence to protect it.

First, students were given basic instructions and had to come up with a plan to create a homestead from nothing. Then, they presented their plan to instructors, received feedback and refined it. Finally, work began, with students rotating amongst jobs in order to experience each task. On the third and final day of their pioneer experience, the students chose the job they felt most suited to do and completed the projects.

They left with a greater appreciation of history and hard work.

“The Niswonger VILLAGE is a unique learning platform,” Stoots said. “There is no other public health simulation lab like this in the country, and this one-of-a-kind facility makes it possible to provide an intensive, hands-on experience that challenges the students to develop teamwork, communication, resilience and a better understanding of Tennessee heritage.”

The students said the experience provided a new perspective on how people lived in the 18th century, while also shedding light on creative ways to use the resources and tools around them.

The three-day Pioneer Experience was just one part of ETSU’s four-week Governor’s School for the Scientific Exploration of Tennessee Heritage, which was held from June 2-28.

Throughout their time at ETSU, students explored Tennessee history through science and history and enjoyed field experiences in paleontology and natural history, as well as field trips to local places of historical interest such as the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Rocky Mount Living History Museum and Jonesborough. They also visited Roan Mountain State Park and Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park as part of their natural history explorations.

The program is sponsored by ETSU’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Services (CASS) and the ETSU College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Ron Roach is the director; Dr. Rebecca Adkins Fletcher is the assistant director of CASS and serves as program coordinator. To learn more about the Governor’s School for the Scientific Exploration of Tennessee Heritage, visit www.etsu.edu/cas/cass/governors.

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