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Science center in Elachee is offering Master Naturalist classes
Students, from left, Milton Smith, Lane Hurst and Bill Dickey look at a mushroom held by Jean Reber, a local mushroom enthusiast, Tuesday during the Master Naturalist program class at the Elachee Nature Science Center. The program strives to connect people with nature. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

When Bill Dickey was a kid in the metro Atlanta area, he'd escape to the woods behind his house to watch the animals and experience nature.

Decades later, he's learning the names of everything he saw and hopes to give the community a more informed version of his childhood experience.

"A lot of people are from out of state, so they don't know what's here," Dickey said.

Dickey, for one, learned Tuesday about mushrooms in the area, including which ones he could eat and others he should avoid, he said.

It was just one lesson in a 10-week Master Naturalist program at Elachee Nature Science Center that will make Dickey a more informed observer of North Georgia's natural world.

The class started its second session last week, attracting some 20 people from the area seeking a Master Naturalist certificate.

Elachee Nature Science Center, which has earned its reputation for its youth-based educational programs, has used the naturalist program to attract adults to the nature science center, said Peter Gordon, Elachee's education director.

Much like the Master Gardener program, Elachee's Master Naturalist program is sponsored by the University of Georgia's Cooperative Extension Service and the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

The 10-week series of classes covers the gamut through classroom and outdoor activities: geology and bird migration, invasive plants and water resources, astronomy and urban forestry, said Cynthia Taylor, natural resources coordinator for Elachee.

For now, as the center only provides daytime classes, the students in the class are either taking the class as part of their job or as a diversion in retirement. Many are Master Gardeners. But Gordon expects participation to grow.

Lynn Kempler began taking the class after she became a Master Gardener. Kempler, who works with elementary-aged children in the Junior Master Gardener program, said she hoped the program would help her and fellow student Betsy Connell cure area youth from what they call "Nature Deficit Disorder."

Kempler and Connell said using the knowledge they gain from the course to reconnect youth with nature might also spur youth on to work to protect the environment.

"I think once you're familiar with all of the variety of life that there is and how it's all interconnected and how people are a major part of that web, it then becomes obvious why it's important for us to do that," Connell said.

On Tuesday, the lesson on mushrooms was a subject Dickey had never approached before. And though he walked away from the course more informed, he wasn't ready to call himself an expert on fungi.

"I think I'll stay away from them, though, just to be safe," Dickey said.

But the awareness is enough for Gordon.

"We're not going to turn people into expert scientists in 10 weeks, but we hope that with that certificate comes a confidence for folks to realize there a lot of resources out there if they're interested in the out of doors or natural history... so they can continue to learn throughout their lives," said Gordon. "I think that's who we really attract... these are lifelong learners. These are folks who are fascinated by things and don't want to stop learning."


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