Mason County Middle School offers learning in the great outdoors
By Susan Riddell
Science students at Mason County Middle School spent part of the 2009-10 school year learning outdoors.
No field trip was required, however. Students stayed on campus and merely headed outside to woods nearby.
Through grants from Toyota, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and Carmeuse Lime and Stone, teachers Brian McDowell and Grant Felice spearheaded an effort to create a unique outdoor classroom filled with several stations aimed at providing students with hands-on learning opportunities.
“The outdoor classroom started out as a dream for our science teachers, but through their dedication and persistence, it has now become a reality,” interim Principal Amy Gilkison said. “The science teachers have worked as a team to design, build and maintain the wonderful outdoor facility at the school.”
“It brings students into an environment that stimulates their senses and brings them closer to nature,” added Felice. “It enables them not only to learn important facts and gather their own data, but make them really feel what being outdoors is like.”
McDowell said initial money the school received was for a trail, amphitheater and outdoor classroom. “We also have created a rock-cycle garden, flagpole shadow study, butterfly garden and a composting site,” McDowell said. “The rock-cycle garden is a collection of large landscaping stones that have been grouped as sedimentary, metamorphic or igneous. Within the area, we can play games that show how rocks change from one type to another. The flagpole shadow study is used to show the ‘reason for the seasons.’ Our classes have equinox parties and mark the shadows as they change.
“The butterfly garden has flowers of different colors and heights to inspire good scientific questions,” McDowell added. “The composting site allows students to experiment with decomposition.”
Four other stations in the scenic outdoor classroom lead students through lessons dealing with geology and paleontology. The first three stations are located along the nature trail.
Station one is a 6-foot tower with three sides covered in rock. “Each side represents a different geologic principle of superposition, folding or faulting,” McDowell said. “The fourth side connects these concepts to Kentucky’s geologic history by containing layers that represent different Ordovician fossil populations.”
At station two, a concrete slab contains simulated dinosaur tracks, where students investigate and make observations based on the varying track marks and distances between them.
In station three, students examine a bone assemblage. “The structure is a concrete pad embedded with (simulated) ice age mammal bones and fossils,” McDowell said. “A replica saber-toothed tiger skull and mastodon teeth are usually the center of much speculation.”
The final station relates to the scale of Earth’s history and incorporates ideas from the first three stations.
“The theme to all areas we have created is inquiry and problem solving,” McDowell said. “The areas allow for students to ask questions, create procedures, gather data and answer their questions in a scientific manner.”
The possibilities for learning in the outdoor setting are endless, according to Felice.
“Students can pick up walnuts that are later eaten by squirrels and feel and smell them, realizing they are an important biotic factor in this section of woods,” Felice said. “They can listen to bird calls and attempt to identify them. They can smell Japanese honeysuckle and observe the flowers and describe their function. Students can dig under rocks and see the home of grubs, look under rocks and catch crayfish, and see mayfly larvae and other macro-invertebrates. Some of our students have never walked on creek rocks and felt a cold stream tickle their toes.
“The experiences they get as we work on lessons have been invaluable and have influenced our students to be young conservationists,” Felice added.
Students sometimes even get to choose their own activities.
“The activities that have worked best have actually been selected by students themselves from an activity menu that allows students to use the woods, creek and meadow to search for habitats and identify species of birds, insects, trees and macro-invertebrates,” Felice said. “When identifying species, our students take that next step and examine features of organisms that make them successful in their habitats.”
While student learning is at the heart of the outdoor classroom, the teachers also are reaping the benefits. Felice said heading outdoors makes him excited about developing different lesson plans to keep the students engaged.
“Having the outdoor classroom has really put us on alert for new productive activities for our students, constantly refreshing our units each year to include new exercises that are stimulating for students and teachers alike,” Felice said. “At the same time, taking our students outside has been exhilarating, providing us with an opportunity to have fresh new approaches to teaching and more opportunities for students to set up inquiry experiments.”
It’s not just the science teachers who are using the outdoor classroom, according to Gilkison.
“Many of our teachers have been able to design and modify their lessons to include the outdoor classroom experience,” Gilison said. “It has been used in our art, English, mathematics and social studies classes to enhance their lessons and make them more meaningful to our students.”
Outdoor classrooms such as the one at Mason County Middle are vital to students receiving a well-rounded, thorough education, according to Gilkison. A key element in accomplishing that is finding a strong balance between the outdoor classroom and the constant presence of technology inside.
“In today’s society, technology plays a key role in classroom instruction and in student engagement,” Gilkison said. “Our teachers have embraced this belief, even with outdoor activities. They have used technology to enhance their outdoor experiences by incorporating GPS units, wireless laptops, portable video cameras, iPod touch devices, digital photography, class wiki pages, lab probes and graphing calculators into their lessons.”
Felice said outdoor classrooms aren’t easy to come by, but the effort is well worth it.
“For teachers interested in constructing their own outdoor areas for students, I suggest that they look to existing community connections and make new ones,” Felice said. “Many businesses have funds that they can donate to nonprofit organizations.
“Check out grant opportunities on the Internet and at the state levels,” Felice added. “Go for grants that are specific to your cause. If you want a bird blind constructed, go to bird support organizations first to ask for assistance. If you have a patch of woods near your school, see how it can be used. A trail can be constructed with five students, clippers, a weed eater and a chainsaw.”