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Outdoor learning: created for students, by students

The hard work of one afterschool club is on track to impact hundreds of students at Gates Chili Middle School.

Spartans there have spent the last several months growing their love of learning and the environment through the design and construction of an outdoor learning space. This student-led project is being guided by members of the Outdoor Club, an opportunity that first began this past spring.

“It seemed like a fun experience to try,” said club member Katelyn B.

As all scientists do, students began this project by conducting research on outdoor learning spaces. They quickly formed their mission: to provide a natural, inclusive space for students to be educated in all content areas, practice social-emotional learning, and have opportunities to manage and explore the space.

During the design phase, they began exploring the creation of a pollinator habitat to help rebuild declining pollinator populations. Pollinators, such as bees, hummingbirds and beetles, help many flowering plants produce their seeds and thus, ensure the continued existence of millions of plant species, and in turn, of most animal species, including humans.

Students turned planning into action this summer when they began construction. Katelyn and others shared that “it was hard work, but it was also a lot of fun. I also learned a lot about like different pollinator plants and perennial flowers. It was really cool.”

Once complete, the outdoor learning space will feature a large seating area with logs and a sun sail for outdoor lessons, a pollinator garden, and an herb and vegetable garden, all maintained by students in the Outdoor Club. Middle school teachers and Outdoor Club Co-advisors Dorothy Brenneis and Lisa Dorofy are excited about the far-reaching impact of this outdoor learning space in their school.

“Science classes can benefit from an outdoor classroom to conduct lessons about ecology, ecosystems, pollinators and more, but an outdoor learning space provides so much more than a space for science,” said Brenneis.

"Other subject areas are already using the space," Dorofy continued. “English and art teachers plan to use it to switch up students’ learning environment and as an inspiration for assignments; family and consumer science (FACS) classes will be able to use the vegetables and herbs grown here. The possibilities are endless.”

The outdoor learning space has also attracted the attention of local and national gardening experts. This fall, Gates Chili Middle School became one of 20 districts nationwide to win the Little Seeds Pollinator Pals Grant, which will fund the students’ planned pollinator garden. Other local grants awarded to the school have piqued the interest of the Gates Garden Club. That interest is now blossoming into a beautiful partnership between the garden club and the school.

“Our club’s mission is to promote education around gardening and environmental issues,” said Gates Garden Club President Sue Cecere. “A big piece of that involves working with our community’s youth to share knowledge and foster a love for gardening and the environment.”

That love continues to grow for students like Katelyn, who said, “I just hope that future students can go out there and have fun. With that space, students can go outside more and nature and stuff.”

To keep up with the Outdoor Club’s progress and some of the learning already happening there, check them out on Twitter @gcms_outdoor.

students standing on stumps  students with pinecone