After a year of significant indoor isolation and remote education, students will likely be encouraged by the idea of gathering in an outdoor environment to learn. Shaler Area High School has the perfect space for this type of education—an open-space classroom situated in a wooded section of the high school campus.
Created more than 15 years ago with the help of a grant, the outdoor learning space was first designed for students to make a connection with the environment and learn through hands-on activities, such as testing water and sampling soil.
The gathering area featured a podium for the instructor and benches for the students. Several students helped to enhance the area. One constructed a small bridge making the area more accessible. Another sanded and stained the bridge, and an Eagle Scout added a unique wooden top to the lectern.
Those features were added more than a decade ago, and since then, the outdoor classroom has only been used sporadically.
Mr. Cory Williams, a history and political science teacher, said he has taken some of his classes to the outdoor learning area over the last three or four years.
“The APUSH curriculum has some lessons that are conducive to talking about nature in nature,” said Williams. “The outdoor classroom also has provided a nice opportunity for low-tech review of content in the weeks leading up to the APUSH exam,” he added.
However, Williams also recognizes challenges associated with the external learning space, including access to the classroom area. Commuting to and from the school building takes away from class time, and the path to the area needs to be cleaner and easier to traverse, Williams said.
Last year, the class of 2020 voted to donate the remainder of their class funds to renovate and expand the outdoor classroom.
Teachers welcome this idea. In a recent survey of high school instructors, the majority of respondents recommended improved access to the classroom, a roof over the learning area, and writing surfaces for the students and teachers. Other features such as wireless access, surveillance cameras, trash cans, and a more discussion-enhancing design were also suggested.
The survey was distributed because school administrators are considering restorations to make the area more attractive and useful to a multitude of teachers and students for a variety of different types of class instruction.
“Depending on the lesson, I think being outside in fresh air listening to each other would be a nice change of pace from the windowless classrooms,” Activities Director Mindy Thiel said.
She added that in addition to gathering feedback from teachers, administrators will also be asking students for their input.
Junior Mallory Moran has an opinion. “Spending time outdoors to learn would be beneficial to students because it is hard to stay focused when you are staring at the same four classroom walls every day. It would be a nice change of scenery,” junior Mallory Moran said.
While the outdoor classroom is designed primarily for learning, Williams and his class found a unique way to use the space a few years ago for another goal—a year-end service project.
Students cleaned up litter around the campus, removed old and dangerous materials on the path leading to the classroom, and repaired some of the dilapidated benches.
“It was incredibly rewarding to see them take ownership of the project, not just for their own benefit, but so that other students in the future would be able to enjoy the space as well.”
That is truly the goal of this renovation project, according to Thiel.
“We want this to be a much-used space once it is complete,” she said.