Fifth-graders' efforts build outdoor classroom Piney Ridge youngsters win grant, help older students construct site

September 28, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A newly built outdoor classroom at Piney Ridge Elementary School gives students and teachers an opportunity for hands-on learning about wetlands, aquatic life and the environment.

The outdoor classroom, the first at a county elementary school, was made possible, in large part, through the efforts of Piney Ridge fifth-graders, who won a $3,000 grant for materials from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and students from South Carroll High School, who contributed labor to the project.

The children and the teen-agers spent about six hours Tuesday building bridges, trails, an observation deck and a classroom on 8 acres of wetlands behind the school.

"The idea is to observe without a negative impact," explained Robert Foor-Hogue, a South Carroll science teacher and a state teacher of the year nominee. "The best way to teach is to have students engage in activity."

Teachers were already conducting classes there the next day, drawing on the spot for lessons in every subject.

The day before, while teen-agers wielded hammers and plied wheelbarrows filled with finely crushed stone, younger students smoothed the stone over the trail with rakes, yanking stubborn underbrush from the new pathways.

Claire McCall, 10, shot photographs "to show how much people are working and how much progress we have made." She ran out of film but not energy. She searched out photo opportunities for two classmates handling video cameras, directing them to a snake hole, a frog and a dead fish.

'Jewel in their back yard'

Although much of the elementary science curriculum involves wetlands, Piney Ridge children have had little opportunity to explore what Foor-Hogue called "the jewel in their back yard." The land was inaccessible, overgrown and often too marshy for walkers.

Now, instead of wading through muck, the children have a half-mile path that runs in several directions along a feeder stream to Piney Run.

"It is like adding another room to our school," said Chuck Rabinovitz, a fifth-grade teacher.

The children plan to mark the 4-foot-wide trails and identify the plant and animal life. Piney Ridge students are lucky, said fifth-grader Anthony Winfield, who hopes to be outdoors all the ,, time.

"Now we have a trail to get to the stream and we can sample the water to make sure everything is OK," Anthony said. "I think it is healthy because I have seen crawfish and tadpoles."

Wetlands preservation actually cleans the Chesapeake Bay, Foor-Hogue said.

"Wetlands are huge filters for nutrients before they go into the streams," he said.

Materials for the project will have no adverse effect on the ecology. The 11 tons of crushed stone used for the pathways will harden in the first rain, creating a smooth surface accessible to wheelchairs. No runoff will empty into the nearby stream. The pressurized wood used for the decking and bridges requires no painting and little maintenance.

Hands-on access to the wetlands is the ideal method to involve children in environmental issues, said South Carroll senior Joshua Elder.

"They can bring classes outside rather than show them pictures in a textbook," he said. "We are involving them in the building so they know this project is theirs."

'Really no limits'

Joshua, who transferred to South Carroll from Baltimore County, was amazed at opportunities, such as the wetlands project, that Foor-Hogue offers students, particularly the independent study available in research science classes.

"You show him your ideas and he will challenge you to complete a project," Joshua said. "There are really no limits. We are learning more than we would sitting in a classroom."

After a few lessons in basic carpentry, the older students constructed a 20-foot bridge, complete with 3-foot-high railings to prevent someone from falling into the shallow water.

Then, they tackled the 16-by-16-foot observation deck, pounding support beams into the ground to create a base. They hammered the planks across the top and finished the deck with a 30-foot pier, which stretches into the marsh.

"Looks like the Amish at a barn raising," said Foor-Hogue, working alongside his students. "I have them 10 across nailing the boards down. The team concept shows them no job is insurmountable."

Doable but a little painful maybe, said senior Kim Gregory with shoulders bruised from carrying 16-foot boards to the construction site.

"I carried three at a time, pretty much like the rest of the guys," she said.

Senior Adam McCready coordinated the project, which will help him earn an Eagle Scout badge. He checked his drawings, inspected construction and later built a roof for the classroom area. He already had built four picnic tables.

Adam, Joshua and others have built a similar project with bridges and trails at their high school. In the spring, the county will enclose a classroom and computer lab at the Winfield campus.

Learning opportunities

Ralph C. Viggiano, principal at Piney Ridge, said the project offers endless learning opportunities for every field of study.

"There will be writing, mapping and ties into the new technology," he said. "I see no downtime; even in winter the children can compare seasonal differences."

Sabrina Stronsky regrets she will have only this year to study real wetlands before she goes to middle school.

"But, I can come back here anytime and say that I worked on this project," she said.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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