Each episode of Tennessee Uncharted documents the experiences of Erick and his crew across the State of Tennessee. This is the full text of the short story that resulted from their adventure at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Welcome to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Established in 1794, it’s one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the country. But to me, it’s more that just a Tennessee institution. It’s part of the foundation. It’s the home of the Volunteers. Home of Smokey. And I’m very proud to say it’s also my alma mater.

Many times since graduating, I’ve wished that I could go back. Back to the days before mortgage payments and retirement plans. Back before receding hairlines and expanding waistbands. Simply put, back to a simpler time, just so I could enjoy what it means to still be “growing up” for a little while longer.

But the truth of the matter is that, as technology continues to evolve, causing us to be ever-more connected, it is also quickly changing what it means to be a kid. From an early age, there are emails to answer, accounts to access, and screens to stare into while just a few years back “fun” had nothing to do with friend requests.

Like most families, we had a traditional swing set and a slide in the backyard, but for me, the woods were my playground. The closest thing we had to a computer was my mom’s electric typewriter, but the ink ribbon would often tangle up from typing gibberish too fast. So instead, I climbed trees, caught frogs, played in the creek, rolled down a hill, and brought bugs in the house inside mason jars… For me, that is what being a kid is all about. But sadly, for a lot of kids today, that is what “fun” was. Because over the years, as our children have searched for fun, more and more that quest has stopped with their search bar. So, how do we get our children back outside? The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture is working hard to try and find the answer.

Today, we start with salamanders. And while scurrying through the Smokies sounds like fun to me, it’s actually part of a field trip that’s out to get a feel for the health of local wildlife.

The Center for Wildlife Health is located within the Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries in the Institute of Agriculture at UT. The center provides a “multi-disciplinary environment” for the study of health issues meaning there are outlets for interests in biology, ecology, geology, pathology, and even veterinary medicine. (Basically, these are not only some of the folks that are helping keep us from killing everything on the planet, but they cover more “ologies” than you can shake a stick at).

You can’t truly know or appreciate your environment without experiencing it, but you can’t properly experience it, without first knowing how to engage with it. However, there’s only so much you can learn from a textbook or in a classroom, which is why UTIA isn’t your textbook program. In fact, today there weren’t any textbooks involved at all. Today was all about literally getting a feel for the field.

“Corn don’t grow at all on Rocky Top, dirt’s too rocky by far. That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top get their corn from a jar.”

But good luck trying to tell that to the students and faculty that are here today hosting the annual UTIA AG Day Festival. Before today, when I thought of AG education, I mostly thought of 4H speeches, purple FFA jackets, and the pungent smell of cow patties, but I now realize that Agriculture means a whole lot more than John Deere and dairy farms. And the more I learned about the importance of AG, the more I saw how important a program like UTIA is. The students in this program will one day be the ones who feed us. Clothe us. Shelter us. And, to put it in game day perspective, “passin’ the ole’ pigskin around” wouldn’t even be possible without AG.

I don’t want to offend anyone by saying this, but AG Day was way more fun than what I expected. All day I kept wishing that I had brought my daughter Annabelle with me. She would have had a ball here. But beyond being a great experience, it’s a great opportunity for parents and prospective students to see the many options UT has available. It’s a great place to possibly discover a career avenue you didn’t know existed. And a great place for alums and the general public, to broaden their horizons and see a program that is serving the people of Tennessee and beyond.

“Once I had a girl on Rocky Top, half bear the other half cat. Wild as a mink but sweet as soda pop, I still dream about that.”

Of what I remember from my time at UT, life can get pretty wild, but it turns out, today is the story of a different kind of wildlife. One I’m not too familiar with.

When I graduated from UT, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up… The problem was, I had already grown. It’s clear that a large part of the success of this program is thanks to the many partnerships they’ve crafted with agencies around the country, supplying not only instruction but internships as well. UTIA is actively connecting students with employers, not only literally building sustainability into these wildlife degrees, but employability as well. Today was a perfect example of the unique educational opportunities available through this program for students to practice what they’re learning outside of the classroom, setting them up for success with hands on experience so they’re ready to jump right in as professionals.

“Once to strangers climbed ole’ Rocky Top, looking for a moonshine still. Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top, reckon they never will.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to find folks who don’t believe fraternities and fun go hand in hand. I was in a fraternity for 2 years in college so I’m fondly familiar with all the particulars of fraternity life…or so I thought. Because, at Alpha Gamma Rho, one of the finest forms of fun is the honor of handling UT’s proudest pup—Smokey.

Today broadened the boundaries of brotherhood for me. It was another profound example of the partnerships enriching the programs at UTIA. This particular example may involve paws as well as pride, but at its heart, it’s another opportunity to put passion into practice.

In fact, the longer that I’m back on campus, I’m realizing that passion is important to many Volunteers. It’s obvious every time that you eye our enviable checkerboard that passion is a big part of our pigskin pride. But, all the way up to the press box, passion plays a big role putting each game day together.

While today was a really great excuse to use my press pass and take in a few Tennessee touchdowns, it was also the perfect close to my crusade as a college kid. Once again, I got to see a fellow Vol fixate on the fun they felt as a child, and what grew out of the gridiron now gives voice to every gameday. For Jeff, his fun is found in the open air of Neyland Stadium and, play by play, he plans to plant that passion in the hearts of tomorrow’s Peyton for plenty of years to come.

“I’ve had years of cramped up city life, trapped like a duck in a pen. Now all I know is it’s a pity life, can’t be simple again.”

Since our first episode, I’ve been saying that you can’t appreciate where you live or the environment around you, if you never get out in it. Our relationship with nature is quickly disappearing and just like any relationship, the one we have with nature needs to be nurtured. But for so long now, “play” has referred to a button to be pressed as opposed to pastimes, parks or picnics.

The University of Tennessee sees how important this predicament is, and though their efforts, they are providing opportunities to reconnect students to the outdoors. In doing so, they aren’t just cultivating a love of the outdoors, they are cultivating lifelong careers.

Tennessee’s forests, pastures, and farmlands are their classrooms. So are the state’s gardens, wetlands, and watersheds. The programs of the UTIA are as varied as the people they serve, and they’re contributing to improving the quality of lives and enhance the agricultural, economic, environmental, and social well-being of Tennessee. The students and faculty here are studying to preserve how great our state is and pushing to make it even better.

A lot has changed since I graduated from the University of Tennessee, but at its big orange core, Rocky Top remains the same. And after this week, it’s clear to see that the folks at UTIA are doing all they can to ensure that “Rocky Top you’ll always be home sweet home to me. Good ole’ Rocky Top, Rocky Top Tennessee, Rocky Top Tennessee.”