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Outdoor classroom in Wauwatosa teaches students through process

Tosa STEM students to use area by Honey Creek to learn about environment

April 30, 2013

Wauwatosa STEM students are ending classroom cabin fever by moving the classroom outside - next to Honey Creek to be exact.

The students, along with staff and volunteers, began laying the groundwork for an outdoor classroom last week by pulling buckthorn and laying wood chips in an area the Milwaukee County Parks Department is allowing the Wauwatosa School District to use.

The outdoor classroom will be an area for STEM students and eventually the rest of the school district to learn about the environment by making it the classroom. The space will have trails, signs, a pergola and a circular sitting spot around a tree.

The idea started at the beginning of last year, when teachers took the students down to the area to observe erosion's effect on the Honey Creek retaining walls. They contacted Jim Ciha, the Milwaukee County Parks department landscape architect, who came up with the idea for the outdoor classroom. He, along with school staff and students, put the plan on paper and, over the last two years, have been in the beginning steps of making that plan a reality.

Learning through process

The students have been involved nearly every step of the way. They've mapped out the area, said how they wanted the classroom to look and even appealed to the county parks board to get the plan approved.

Each grade made a PowerPoint presentation last year with their ideas for the classroom. Teachers took those ideas early this school year, meshed them together and brought 10 students to the county board to present their ideas, requesting permission to alter the ground.

They succeeded and were given guidance from the park to ground some ideas.

"It was neat because the board made it really professional," STEM teacher Chris Sellers said. "They gave Jim some ideas to bring back to use to really focus what we were going to do and I think that was very helpful with where we're going to go. We were able to relay that message to the kids and they were able to get a list of needs and wants. It's been a long process, so far but it's been really beneficial."

Some of the students' needs and wants included weather stations, rain barrels and gardens.

Throughout the process of approval, design and now implementation, Sellers has adopted ways to incorporate lessons into the classroom. When he got his hands on the preliminary design, he was teaching area, perimeter and three-dimensional figures. He had the students map out what the outdoor classroom would look like through a computer program. They also drew out the blueprints of the classroom.

He's not alone in making the outdoor classroom a life-lesson for students. Each grade unit picked one outdoor topic to learn such as bats, birds or invasive species, and will fuse them into the outdoor classroom. Those learning about birds will be adding birdhouses and setting up bird-watching stations. Boathouses will also be added, as well as trails and signs pointing out vegetation and animals.

"The thing that I love most about it and what I think is important for the kids to realize is that learning isn't just in these four walls of the building," kindergarten teacher Maggie Detrempe said. "Learning can take place anywhere."

Technology and the outdoors

It's not all outdoors for STEM students. They are incorporating technology with the outdoors through the classroom. They are creating a website via Project WILD, an educational resource focused on conservation. Each group made a website dedicated to their line of research and will add to it as the classroom unfolds.

They want to put QR codes, which can be scanned by smartphones or tablet computers, on each sign they make. The codes would lead to their websites so classroom-users can get background information about what they see in real time.

Students have also been using school-issued iPads and iPods for outdoor projects already. They've used a leaf-identifying application and have been taking pictures of rocks and other outdoor items as well.

Community support

Teachers and students have not been the only ones working on the classroom. According to the teachers, the parents have been heavily involved as well.

Parents have pulled weeds, laid wood chips, cut lumber for signs and asked what teachers need donated to give the project wings.

The outdoor classroom has also received a $2,700 grant from the Educational Foundation of Wauwatosa and a $3,000 grant from IBM.

WSTEM teachers want to return the favor, eventually making the outdoor classroom available not only to all Wauwatosa public schools, but to private organizations such as the Boy or Girl Scouts.

"With our fifth graders this year the complaint has been that they'll be gone when it's ready," Sellers said. "As they go on and go through, they can come back and check it out. How can we involve your group to make this better? Now that you're done, you can look at ways to make it better and you have experience enough to give us fresh ideas."

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