Piedmont University MAT Grad Now Leads Elachee Nature Science Center
After 29 years in public education, Sarah Bell MAT ’98 is now teaching what could be the most important lesson of her career: the importance of protecting the state’s natural resources.
In 2021, Bell became president and CEO of the Elachee Nature Science Center, a 1,400-acre learning and conservation center located in Gainesville, Georgia. The position allows her to use her background as an educator and administrator.
“My classroom is now these beautiful grounds, and my students are now both schoolchildren and members of the general public,” Bell said.
“This is a dream job for me.”
A graduate of Gainesville High School, Bell earned her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Georgia. After several years in the classroom, Bell decided to go back to school herself, enrolling in Piedmont’s Master of Arts in Teaching program.
Her son was a newborn at the time, and if she was going to be successful in graduate school while also juggling the demands of her job and motherhood, Bell needed a supportive educational environment. She found it at Piedmont.
“When people talk about Piedmont, they always say the same thing — that you get a great education in a place where people really care about you — and it’s true,” she said.
Bell recalled that during group assignments, her classmates would take turns holding her son so she could type. Bell and her former classmates have remained good friends ever since their days at Piedmont.
“I don’t think I would have had the same experience anywhere else,” Bell said.
Aside from the relationships she built at Piedmont, Bell benefitted from studying alongside individuals with backgrounds vastly different than her own.
“The ability to be flexible, open-minded, and to relate to people who’d had different experiences than I had is something that’s helped me throughout my career,” she said.
“When I graduated, not only was I more confident and knowledgeable as an educator, but I also had a great support system.”
Bell’s master’s degree, and an Education Specialist degree she later earned from the University of North Georgia, allowed her to move from the classroom into administrative roles.
In total, Bell spent 29 years working for Gainesville City School System. She taught elementary school for much of that time, before becoming an academic coach and ultimately a deputy superintendent. Throughout that time, what Bell strove for every day was “lightbulb moments” with her students.
“You can see it in their eyes, when they grasp a concept or make a connection,” Bell said.
Now as president and CEO of the Elachee Nature Science Center, Bell is working for similar “lightbulb moments” — when visitors learn something about their natural environment or gain a sense of empowerment about their ability to preserve, protect, or simply enjoy, the outdoors.
In 2022, Elachee hosted 21,000 students on school field trips. In addition to field trips, Elachee runs a variety of programs for children, including a summer camp.
“There are children who come here who’ve never been over a bridge. They’ve never experience anything beyond their homes and their bus route to school. They didn’t even know Lake Lanier existed,” she said.
“It’s magic seeing them learn. Maybe we even inspire their future careers.”
Elachee offers plenty of opportunities for adults too, such as hikes, public education programs, and master naturalist courses. Participants, Bell said, leave with a greater sense of responsibility for protecting natural resources and a renewed appreciation for the outdoors.
“We help people remember that there is great healing that can take place in nature,” Bell said.
In her role, Bell, who oversees a staff of 39, is working to expand Elachee’s reach and influence. She is working to increase the number of visits to the center and expand programming.
“This place is a gift,” she said. “It is incumbent upon us to take care of this gift and to help others know how to do that as well.”
Learn more about Piedmont’s graduate degree programs at piedmont.edu/grad.