Use of public rail-trails for earth and environmental science education

Shaulis, James R., Pennsylvania Geological Survey, DCNR, 3240 Schoolhouse Road, Middletown, PA 17057, and Jones, Thomas J., 700 Diamond St., Berlin, PA 15530-1519.

In the spring of 1998, a "Rails to Rocks" pilot project was launched to develop educational activities in earth and environmental science for grade levels K through 12. The project used geological features found along a 7 mile section of the Allegheny Highland Trail (lying between Garrett and Rockwood in Somerset County), and a 26 mile section of the Youghiogheny River North Trail (between Connellsville and West Newton, in Fayette and Westmoreland Counties). Both sections are part of a 400-mile, northwest to southeast trending, Pittsburgh to Washington D.C., rail-trail corridor. Because this "rail-trail” (defined here as an abandoned railroad bed that has been converted to a public hiking or biking trail) cuts across the regional grain of the geology throughout it’s length, there are many places to observe a variety of rocks, and also, a variety of geological relationships. Sites determined to have significant educational potential were described and interpreted. Educational materials for each site have been developed to support the teaching of earth and environmental science standards in Pennsylvania. Workshops designed to help teachers incorporate rail-trail site based activities into their curriculum plans were held. The importance of field trips to the teaching of earth and environmental science cannot be overstated. Until now the teaching of these subjects, in elementary and secondary schools in Pennsylvania, has been primarily confined to the classroom, because of a lack of safe, accessible, liability free, outdoor venues. With the availability of rail-trail corridor sites, opportunities exist to connect students to rock outcrops, landforms and related ecological sub divisions. Field based teaching of traditional geologic concepts, evolution of the landscape, the relationship between in place resources and regional economic history, and environmental impacts associated with resource extraction, is now possible. Critical to the success of the pilot project was the cooperation between the educational community, scientific community and local trail organizations that worked hand in hand, in the design and implementation of the educational programs. This approach, in addition to maximizing the utilization of resources, also allowed the concerns of each group to be met, as they evolved. Trails previously considered useful only for recreation now have multi dimensional identities, with the addition of school programs. Permanent geologic interpretative displays, directed toward the general public are also planned.

Northeastern Section–35th Annual Meeting (March 2001)