A new classroom is on the grow at Clear Creek Amana Middle School in Tiffin, thanks to student, faculty and community partnerships. And now it’s moving closer to completion, fueled by a $13,583 Wellmark Foundation Matching Assets to Community Health (MATCH) grant to help finance an outdoor learning center this school year, projected to cost around $35,000.
It’s one of 28 projects in Iowa receiving funds in varying amounts, contingent upon receiving a 50 percent match by Nov. 6, through a combination of in-kind donations or services and cash.
All of the projects are designed to encourage physical activity or access to nutritious foods — ranging from the Smokestack vehicle-free bridge in Cedar Rapids to an inclusive playground update in Durant and trail paving and enhancements in Washington County.
The Clear Creek Amana classroom will fulfill both requirements, by augmenting activity and nutrition — not only for students across the district, but also for the community as a space for club meetings, yoga classes or Master Gardener involvement.
Local businesses, the National FFA, Backyard Abundance and AmeriCorps also have been instrumental in funding and designing the project. The public can makes donations, as well, at Ccaschools.org/Page/5485
“The whole perspective of an outdoor classroom is to provide students the opportunity to explore outdoor learning,” said Alyssa Amelon, the agriculture education/FFA teacher for the middle and high schools. “The outdoor learning space is going to provide an outdoor exposure, and the teachers are going to be able to enhance their lessons to provide real-world application.”
Students already have had a hand in designing the focus areas, which are ADA compliant and will include a learning shelter, an activity shelter, a contemplation nook, a Fern Gully and separate sensory study area for studying biodiversity, and vegetable and fruit gardens.
Learning by doing
After contractors pour the concrete, various classes will be involved in building the structures and planting and maintaining the landscape and gardens. Students also will research the growing process, determine what plants to grow and how to obtain and nurture them. The goal isn’t to feed the school district, Amelon said, but by working with the school’s food service, students may be able to try out something new to them, like brussels sprouts.
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She hopes to have the first harvest from the gardens in May, and with the help of FFA students and perhaps 4H clubs, keep harvesting through the summer.
Learning is the key to turning an inviting outdoor space into a classroom, said middle school STEM teacher Reagan Boeset, who began brainstorming ideas with Amelon in the fall of 2018.
“We started thinking outside the box on ways to get students out of the four walls of school and learn by doing,” Amelon said. “So many of our students really benefit from actually getting their hands dirty and working. We can talk about things in the classroom and project them all we want, but until a student really engages, the learning doesn’t necessarily take place.”
For Boeset, form, function and engineering are paramount in creating this learning environment.
“Obviously, it’s beautiful, but it’s useful, and I think that every piece of the design has some function to it,” Boeset said. “We have places that are specifically made for calming places, and we have places that are made for edible gardens. The biggest thing is, it’s not just ‘space.’ It’s not just a chair, it’s not just a picnic table. It’s been designed to be educational because of its use.”
She also hopes to help teachers design ways to incorporate the learning center into their curriculum, so it will be more than just a pretty place.
“Now, we just take breaks for fresh air and a little vitamin D. But if we’re intentional about why we’re using the outdoor piece for a particular lesson or certain groupings of students, it comes together then as part of the lesson, part of the learning,” Boeset said.
And while her focus is on STEM — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — the outdoor classroom will offer all students what she said is at the core of education: “applicable problem-solving.”
“I don’t even care what subject it’s in. It’s all about teaching kids — empowering them to realize they can problem-solve and navigate any part of the world, but they don’t know they can,” she said. With this outdoor space, “allowing them to design and be a part of that empowers them to realize they can change quite literally the face of the earth” by changing the landscape.
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She also envisions students helping to shape the guidelines for community usage of the space. By working with the school board or the city, they can see that multiple steps and input go into making decisions, she said.
Amelon added: “We’re hoping community members seek out this opportunity to relax on the walking trail, smell the flowers as they might go by and really observe student work at its finest.”
Other area projects
The following Eastern Iowa projects also are receiving Wellmark MATCH grants. For more information, go to the Newsroom tab at Wellmark.com/foundation/
• ConnectCR, Inc.: $25,000
ConnectCR will revitalize the urban Cedar Lake and build a pedestrian/trail bridge over the Cedar River near the NewBo and Czech Village neighborhoods. The Smokestack Bridge will provide vehicle-free passage across the Cedar River. This bridge also enhances the city’s connection to two national trails: The American Discovery Trail and the Great American Rail-Trail. It also improves the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, which runs from Waterloo to Cedar Lake, through downtown Cedar Rapids, and eventually on to Muscatine.
• Coralville: $25,000 for Trailhead Plaza at Creekside Park, Coralville
The Trailhead Plaza at Creekside will be a destination for riders of the existing paved trail network and will serve as the starting point for the adjacent natural surface trail systems. This plaza will include a shelter, informational signage, bike parking, drinking fountain and sitting areas.
• Durant PTO: $24,000 for an inclusive playground update
This multifaceted project began in 2017 when the mulch surrounding the playground equipment was deemed hard for some students to navigate. The play structures will be kept, but the surrounding ground needs to be pour-in-place, solid surface tiles, to provide a safe, ADA-compliant surface. The project also will add an inclusive spinner where students can stand, sit or be buckled in to meet their differing needs while enjoying recreation time.
• La Porte City: $25,000 for Lions Park Ball Diamond Renovation — Phase I
The La Porte City Parks and Rec Commission and the La Porte City Lions Club have collaborated to renovate the existing city-owned ball diamonds at Lions Park. The project will include removing the existing infrastructure; repositioning the fields to allow for safer spacing between them; increasing the size to a 225-foot diamond with base paths to meet regulations; adding new fencing for ADA requirements and spectator safety; and new sidewalks throughout the park.
• Sigourney: $25,000 for Pickleball/Shuffleboard Courts
City tennis courts not used regularly will be repurposed for pickleball and shuffleboard. The city also will install a fence; large umbrellas for relief from the sun; and a table, chairs and benches.
• Victor: $17,365.89 for Water Works Park
This park has not been improved in 50 years from lack of funding. This grant will help renovate the ground surface, play structures and other accessible amenities.
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• Washington County: $25,000 for Kewash Trail Paving and Enhancements — Phase II, Washington
This project will involve the grading and paving of about 7,400 feet of existing Kewash Nature Trail. Phase II will extend west to the Crooked Creek Pedestrian Bridge, a scenic location in Washington County.
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