‘Just add kids’: Carpenters Elementary finds recipe for outdoor education success
By Matthew Stewart | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Carpenters Elementary School has found the recipe for a successful environmental education program.
“Just add kids,” Principal Fred Goins said.
Students eat up opportunities in the 17-acre outdoor environmental learning area behind the school, he said.
“Children haven’t changed that much. They still like hands-on activity and movement, and our learning area provides both,” Goins said. “Children are also visual in nature, so it’s a great opportunity to see what they’re learning in class. They can come down here, turn over rocks, see crawdads or insects. It’s perfect for them.”
In 2009, the Blount County Board of Education approved the learning area. Environmental Landscape Design Associates developed the plan, which was later funded by the Blount County Soil Conservation District.
Officials hoped to complete the master plan within five years. They recently completed the plan’s first phase.
Trails were designed as a tiered system including boardwalks, chat (very fine rock) and pervious concrete that allows rainfall to be filtered and seep into the ground. All trails will be handicapped accessible.
Supporters have developed walking trails, Goins said. Billy Minser, a retired University of Tennessee research associate/instructor in wildlife and fisheries science, built one path with a chain saw and tractor.
Foothills Excavating recently donated about $20,000 worth of services, he said. Workers laid down crush and run gravel and chat. They also hauled dirt and built the half-acre wetland.
The master plan also creates upland and lowland meadows, an outdoor classroom, council rings, overlooks and a treehouse/lookout platform. Intermixed throughout the trail system are planned rain gardens, a sediment basin divided into thirds to show natural succession, plant identification plaques and interpretive signage.
Supporters are currently working to raise funds for the outdoor classroom and several learning centers, Goins said. Langdale Forest Products of Sweetwater plans to donate lumber for the project.
Officials would like to create learning centers for a wide range of material, such as animals, astronomy, insects, geology and plants, he said. Minser also plans to build a boardwalk and teaching area to view the natural spring.
Minser’s former students and other supporters have catalogued the area’s features and wildlife, Goins said. The process is still ongoing.
In time, school officials also hope to lead night hikes through the area to study night wildlife.
Classes use area
Carpenters Elementary School has been using the learning area since 2009, Goins said. Every class has visited the learning area.
“The learning area belongs to them,” he said. “They’ll be here as long as it’s here.”
More than half are using the area on a regular basis, Goins said. First grade teacher Leisa Stinnett leads 1½- to 2-hour science instructional lessons in the area each week.
While recently walking through the area, Stinnett taught about birds, creeks, crustaceans, decomposition, insects, plants, springs and wetlands. She also answered students’ questions about the environment.
“A lot of material that I teach isn’t covered in my science standards, but it’s exactly what they need,” she said. “I’m teaching more advanced material, which should provide a foundation for them as second-, third- and fourth-graders.”
Stinnett noted that a previous lesson about decomposing logs isn’t covered in her standards. “I taught them about it, maybe two or three months ago. However, they were still able to explain it today. It’s obviously making an impression on them.”
The teacher’s main goal is to create lifelong learners. “I want to see increased interest, knowledge and retention of that knowledge. I’d also like to instill a love of nature and create a desire to take that love and carry it into all areas. If I can help them to see interconnectedness, I can help them to evolve and grow as human beings.”
“I feel like a scientist when I’m back here,” said first-grader Cameron Anderson. “We’re learning about nature, all the animals, insects and plants. I love science!”
The first-grader has enjoyed learning about creeks and examining plant life, such as moss. He’s also liked the learning area’s “thinking area,” which is a designated space for students to reflect on their experiences.
“My favorite place to go is the (natural) wetland, because we can hear the frogs,” said first-grader Tyler Bledsoe.
“I love getting the time to learn about all the things down here,” Anderson said. “Wetland Wednesdays is one of favorite days. I always look forward to it.”
Community volunteers also look forward to the weekly visits.
“I’ve always loved the environment,” said volunteer Jennie Hoenie, who usually participates in every Wetland Wednesday. “I want to pass on that love for nature to these children, because we have an amazing resource. It’s extremely important that they learn about the environment at this age, because we get so much joy from it. They need to appreciate it, want to grow up to protect it.”
Part of larger program
County officials were not aware of the environmental features of the 17-acre tract behind Carpenters Elementary School when they purchased about 160 acres for future schools in 1999. The area was not explored by officials until a site survey was conducted in 2006.
In 2007, Goins approached Blount County Soil Conservation District Director Erich Henry about the tract’s future development. Henry acted initially as project director.
Officials view the outdoor classroom as a subproject of the Baker/Nine Mile Creek Watershed Initiative. The initiative consists of 16 agencies and grant partner, including the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Valley Authority and Watershed Association of the Tellico Reservoir.
The Baker/Nine Mile Creek Watershed Initiative’s goal is to identify and remove impaired — or 303(d)-listed — streams within the area of these two creeks.