Environmental Education and Field Studies Programs at Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge

This list is just the beginning of the programs we offer at the Waccamaw Visitor and Environmental Education Center and surrounding sites. If you have specific topics (environmental issues, species you are studying, projects) or questions please don’t hesitate to email us at educator@sccoastalFriends.org.  We are always looking for new ways to get students outdoors and involved in their environments!

Field Studies

Our goal is always to get as many students as possible out and onto our public lands! These programs may take a little planning but we think it’s worth it to get kids immersed in the outdoors!

Cox Ferry

Cox Ferry is a fantastic tract of land almost on the border of Georgetown and Horry County. For this program students spend the morning identifying and collecting data on the diverse array of living things within Waccamaw Wildlife National Refuge (see Forest Ecology, Pond Ecology, and Biodiversity Binge blurbs). Then, if time allows time, come back to the Environmental Education Center where students will spend the afternoon modeling the complex ecosystem they just investigated. Bonus: Leave with an awesome model ecosystem mural for your classroom AND plenty of real data for students to analyze.

Additional Time: We’ll stop at a nearby location to see if we can find the Rafinesque big-eared bat colony and discuss the vital role that bats play in our ecosystem.

Sandy Island

Would you be interested in taking your class on a boat trip down the Pee Dee River to explore the ecosystems of Sandy Island? We have plenty of standards-based, inquiry driven lessons to accompany the trip.  Sandy Island is a fantastic place to study the longleaf pine ecosystem which is one of the most species-rich ecosystems on earth.  Once threatened by development the island is also a great example of the challenges of protecting these important places.

Social Studies Add-on: If you’re interested we can also spend some time talking about the history of rice culture in South Carolina and how it has shaped this ecosystem. Coastal Expeditions provides ferry service to the island and we will be happy to help you coordinate plans for your trip with them.  Although there is no fee for our program there is a fee for boat transportation. The whole program would last about 3.5 hours.

Environmental Education Programs

Each of these lessons will last about 45 minutes. Depending on your timetable and the size of your group, you can pick any two (groups larger than 30 students) or three (less than 30 students) of these programs for your students’ visit. Or add one of the Additional Time activities to spend a complete day on one theme.

Note that lower elementary programs are geared for (K-3) students and upper elementary/middle school lessons are geared toward 4th grade and up.

Bats, Black Bears, and Other Mammals

Lower Elementary – Students investigate the diversity of mammals that utilize our refuge. We’ll examine adaptations that help them survive and thrive along our rivers, and play a game to learn what factors may limit their population.

Upper Elementary /Middle School – Students will learn about the adaptations of some of our local mammal species and where these mammals fit on the food web by studying their teeth,. Then students will learn to use a dichotomous key and compete to see who can identify the most skulls from mammals in our local ecosystems.

Conservation and Recycling

Lower Elementary – Students will learn all about how their actions can both positively and negatively affect the environment. We’ll talk about natural resources, conserving energy and water, turning our yards into good habitat, packing a waste-free lunch and other ways that they can help protect our local ecosystems. Then, we’ll turn the focus to recycling as students learn the processes used to make new paper from old paper and even make their own little piece of recycled paper to take home!

Upper Elementary/Middle School – Students will calculate their ecological footprint based on their daily activities. Then we’ll spend some time walking around our facility and discussing ways to reduce their daily footprint. We’ll also discuss some opportunities they have to improve conservation habits of their school as well as ideas to make their homes, yards, and even schoolyards into better habitat for local wildlife.

Forest Ecology and Scavenger Hunt 

Lower Elementary – Students will hone their observational skills and discover some of the ways animals hide in plain sight as we hunt for the elusive “pipe lizard”. Then, they’ll learn about the many functions of our forest as they work in groups to complete a forest scavenger hunt on the  onsite trails.

Upper Elementary/Middle School – In this lesson, the students are the botanists as they identify common trees on our onsite trail. Not only will students practice their observational skills as they learn about the food webs of our forest and wetland ecosystems, but they will also practice their analytical thinking and problem-solving as they work in small groups to identify local flora using a dichotomous key.

Additional Time: Make a food web – students use photos (of animals, tracks, dens, webs, etc.) that they take during the hike to create a model of the forest food web.


Students will learn the basics of using a compass by utilizing their simple math skills and studying degrees, angles, and directions. After mastering the basics, the class will set out on a compass course around our grounds to see if they can find the secret prize at the end.

Freshwater Ecology 

A great lesson where students get outside and investigate some of the lesser known inhabitants of our freshwater ponds, creeks, and rivers! Students will use dip nets to collect an array of aquatic organisms (including aquatic insects, dragonfly larvae, tadpoles, salamanders, etc.) from the Pee Dee River or on-site ponds.

Lower Elementary – Then we’ll take our specimens into the lab and discuss what they are and the fact that many of these species under go metamorphosis. Finally students will sketch the organisms they caught in their natural habitat. Pictures can be taken home or hung on our classroom wall pond ecosystem mural.

Upper Elementary/Middle School – Then we’ll take our specimens back to the lab where students can use a dichotomous key to identify the organisms and learn how scientists use these organisms to determine the health of a pond.

Additional Time – Students use instruments to explore other ways to evaluate the health of our ponds. We’ll test basic water quality parameters of our ponds and take water samples to examine under microscopes back in the lab.

Back at school – Use our online, long-term water quality database to examine and graph changes in water quality over seasons or years.

Red Cockaded Woodpecker 

The longleaf pine forests of Sandy Island are home to this endangered species of woodpecker. Students will investigate what factors create suitable habitat for the endangered red cockaded woodpecker (RCW). Then, we’ll discuss the reasons for this bird’s decline and have a chance to be biologists and “monitor” a simulated RCW colony.

Reptiles and Amphibians

Meet (and interact with) some of our scaly friends.  Students will learn distinguishing characteristics of reptiles and amphibians as well as some of the challenges they face. Live animals will be used to allow for a hands-on, close up look at some of the most common reptiles in the Lowcountry.

Swallow-tailed Kites

Lower Elementary – Dress a classmate up as a swallow-tailed kite! Learn all about the adaptations that help these unique birds migrate all the way from Brazil to nest on Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge annually. Then, students will experience the long, difficult journey of migrating from continent to continent in search of food and a safe haven!

Upper Elementary/Middle School – Students will be the scientists as they conduct a “bird survey” at the Waccamaw Center (just like our national wildlife refuge technicians). Using binoculars they will begin to understand some of the difficulties of collecting data in the field while also learning to identify some of the more common species of birds that utilize the refuge.


Become a nature detective by using clues to identify which animals live near you. Learn to identify the tracks of common animals found in Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge and how their feet help them survive in their habitat. Students will make rubbings of tracks of local animals to take home!

Biodiversity Binges

Let’s take a close look at the biodiversity of our region! Students will learn about the five kingdoms of living things as they use scientific techniques to catalogue all of the living organisms in one of our ecosystems on site at the Waccamaw Education Center or at one of our other field studies sites (see above). Then we’ll bring our data back into the classroom and utilize our math skills as we calculate and discuss the importance of biodiversity and species richness.

Additional time – Students get the opportunity to survey a few different environments and then come together as a class to compare the results.

Back at School – Repeat this activity around your school. Then, compare the data from your school to the data you collected on the refuge.

Service Learning

We love when students give back to the environments they are studying and are always up for helping classes with service learning projects. If you have a project idea, let us know what it is…we’d love to help brainstorm creative ways to make it happen! Here are some examples:

Habitat Enhancement – Pick a species or ecosystem that your class is concerned about and research what can be done to help.  Past projects have included building and installing bat boxes and bird houses, oyster reef restoration, and planting native plants.

Teach others about our wildlife! Students come to the refuge to learn about some of the native and invasive flora and fauna.  They can work in groups to create interesting and informative signs to hang up (in school yards, on interpretive trails, etc.) teaching other students interesting facts or important FYIs (e.g. Don’t touch the poison Ivy!) about the ecosystems.

Fundraising projects – A lot of times the best way to help is to donate money to a group who has the same interests as you. Past projects include selling “Turtle Bags” (reusable cloth shopping bags with sea turtle graphics) with a note inside about the dangers of plastics in the environment and the importance of making sure your trash/recycling ends up in the right place and not in a sea turtle’s stomach.

Make your schoolyard in to a great habitat! This usually includes things like building and installing bluebird boxes, bird feeders and water features or planting native plants that attract pollinators around your campus or in other public places to create habitat for birds. Often we start this as a research project, having students investigate what they can do to make a place more hospitable habitat.