We built an outdoor classroom in a prairie garden at our school. The goal of this project is to bring nature to students, teachers, and parents who otherwise would not come in contact with members of our natural community in their daily lives. Students and adults of all interests and abilities now get direct exposure to native plants and animals while using the space for class or social activities. If people like what they see, our environmental science students will help them design and build native gardens in their own yards.
The garden which is located in a courtyard off of a glass hallway is a natural “billboard” that proclaims both the beauty of our natural community and the power of students to make a dramatic and significant difference to improve the lives of all members of our community (human and non-human alike).
Last year’s senior students designed and built the tables, benches, pergola, and chalkboard cabinet, in addition to raising most of the money and donations required. This year’s students will design the layout of prairie plants based on the amount of light and water available in different parts of the garden. Students are already busy writing grants and planning fundraisers to pay for the plants which they will install around the instructional space in the garden. Finally, students are working to create educational displays in the garden to teach visitors about our native plants and animals.
The outdoor classroom several substantial impacts on our school community both physically and mentally. Physically, we are no longer wasting gas mowing an area that was never used. Global warming will be further reduced when the prairie plants remove carbon dioxide gas from the air and store the carbon deep underground in their extensive root system. Finally, the prairie plant roots that stretch twenty to thirty feet underground loosen up the soil and allow precipitation to infiltrate into the aquifer which then stores the purified water for generations.
Mentally, we are teaching students and adults in our community that prairie plants are beautiful and valuable members of our community which are going extinct. With a little effort, (and the help of our environmental science students) families in our community can have a piece of our natural heritage on their own property to use and enjoy for many generations.
Environmental science and special education students planted a small wagon wheel shaped garden on one end of the courtyard several years ago. In an effort to get more students and classes involved, two environmental science students proposed creating an outdoor classroom in the courtyard for their senior project. Once completed this multi-use space, with vine-covered, auditorium-style seating for 30, an outdoor chalk board (for large group lessons) and 8 tables and chairs seating 32 (for small group lessons), can be used by any teacher for virtually any subject, or social event.
1. A student drew up detailed blueprints for the instructional space in his architectural design and engineering class.
2. Students in the environmental science class conducted fundraisers for the project (nature calendar sales, recycling printer cartridges, selling fluorescent light bulbs, holding a school wide barbeque) and collected donations (gravel and trucking).
3. Students donated their time on weekends and over the summer to build the paths, tables, benches, pergola, and chalkboard cabinet.
4. Teachers attended a week long workshop over the summer to work with other area schools and design ways to integrate native gardens into the curriculum.
5. The following year’s environmental science students and ecology club will continue to raise money to plant the garden and create educational displays.
6. The money raised will be given to a different department at the school each year. In this way, more teachers and students from every discipline will become directly involved in creating something educational and inspirational for the garden.
Administrators at all levels, (departmental, building and grounds), the principal, and the Board of Education were involved in granting permission to modify the existing courtyard and approving the design plans. Building and grounds personnel arranged the delivery of building materials, supplied students with tools, and supervised the construction. Administrators in several offices oversaw the budget and wrote the checks for construction costs. The technology office created an online sign up calendar open to all teachers and administrators. Technology staff also publicized the students’ efforts by posting pictures and stories about the outdoor classroom on the school website. Finally, the principal took 5 minutes during her opening remarks to introduce the new instructional space to the faculty on the first day of school.
Students designed the layout and the structures for the outdoor classroom. Students raised funds for the project by selling nature calendars, recycling printer cartridges, selling fluorescent light bulbs, holding a school wide barbeque during the lunch periods. Students also collected donations of gravel, trucking and the vines for the pergola along with some labor from area businesses. Students then donated their time on weekends and over the summer to construct the paths, tables, benches, pergola, and chalkboard cabinet.
The paths, tables, benches, pergola, and chalkboard cabinet were designed to last outdoors for several decades. Outdoor quality lumber, concrete, and plastic wood tops were used to minimize decay and maintenance of the instructional space. Wood chips and landscaping cloth were used in the garden area to retain moisture in the soil and to suppress weeds.
The native plants that will be planted require no fertilizer or water and will live for decades or longer. Additional educational signs, statues, and murals that will be added to the garden will also be made of outdoor quality materials and should continue to provide inspiration to students and adults for many years to come.
Students of all interests and ability levels will use the space and be exposed to our native plants and animals. Parents, neighbors, family, and friends purchase nature calendars and greeting cards featuring members of natural community to raise money for the garden. The PTO (Parent, Teacher Organization) and other social clubs hold meetings in this space for business and pleasure. Teacher education groups like NEST (Network of Environmental Science Teachers) and the Earth Partnership for Schools use this space to encourage other teachers and schools to build native gardens in their communities.