New classroom is a living lab
The stiff breeze swaying the nearby trees aside, Cole Parsons, 13, concentrated instead on the task at hand — weighing a glass beaker on a lab balance.
Under the watchful eye of Angela Everett, his middle school science teacher at Triad Baptist Christian Academy, Parsons soon accomplished the mission.
Then class officially began as well as the search and work to answer the day’s big question: which type of soil held the most water: clay, silt, or sand? Instead of a book, video or lecture, Everett used the Academy’s new outdoor classroom to help her students touch and see the answer for themselves.
“I love that the kids can get out of a room with four walls and not just watch, listen or write but learn by doing,” she said. “I hope the students see that learning is part of life and can take place anywhere, not just in a classroom or from reading a book and hearing lecture notes — although there certainly is a place for all of that.
“In our science classes I always try to make what we are learning personally relevant so they learn: ‘How does this apply to us as humans and what difference does this information make in my own life?’ ”
More than two years in the making, the classroom is the first phase of living learning outdoors that could eventually include a greenhouse and more, said the Academy’s director of academics, Rheanne Burkett.
She said that Donna Mannon, the Academy’s education director, has long envisioned an outdoor classroom — an opportunity seen as soon as Triad Baptist Church bought 92 acres of land to further expand its campus in 2014.
“She commissioned Jennifer Locklear, our high school science teacher, to head up a committee to formulate a proposal for the classroom,” Burkett recalled. “I was put on that committee with Jennifer as the administrative liaison, along with the middle school science teacher at the time, Mary Lou Hayes.”
Over the next two years, Burkett said the committee worked to gather ideas and presented its plans for the outdoor classroom to the Academy’s board of directors in spring 2018.
“Flooding showed the initial location wouldn’t work but we found an alternative site, and Wayne Welch (Triad Baptist Church’s maintenance director) and his crew cleared the land for us last spring and we finished the rest of it this summer.”
Burkett credits her husband, Jim, for helping make the lab a reality too.
“He got Holman Fence Company to build and install the fence and the benches, researched and got all the materials, oversaw the work and constructed the shed himself with some assistance from Robert Willard, and Aaron Johnson and his sons.
“I had an idea and asked for Jim’s help to make it happen, and he did,” she said.
Since the outdoor classroom’s official dedication Aug. 1, Everett said she’s used it about five times and has also taken her students on the church’s running and walking trail to help students identify different plants and see tropism in action — the phenomenon when plants turn and grow in response to an external stimulus like the sun.
Academy teachers use a Google calendar to schedule time in the outdoor classroom. Triad Baptist Church groups who want to use the space contact Wendy Fulp, receptionist and secretary to Lead Pastor Rob Decker.
Burkett said that the Academy set up a fund to build the lab from Academy fundraisers. Additional funds will be needed, she said, to add a greenhouse or other ideas for phase two such as a weather station or butterfly garden.
“One of our purposes here is to teach the students the wonders of God in creation,” she said. “This classroom adds a new dimension to that instruction as classes can get out there with their projects and experiments and learn all they can. We hope that each class will adopt a project to be completed in the outdoor classroom to enhance it. The list of possibilities is endless.”
When their outdoor classroom experience was over, Parsons and classmates Jayden Deal and Whitney Ung were all surprised to learn that clay held the most water. They also collected rocks for a future lab session.
“Science labs are interesting but complicated,” Parsons said he learned that day. “The clay was hard to find.”
“It was a very different experience and fun to do,” Deal said. Ung agreed, adding, “It was fun to do something different.”
Everett said that the outdoor classroom seemed an ideal way to teach students about soil types since it offered easy access to the materials needed for study.
“Throughout our unit on rocks and soil I try to remind the students that rocks are important in our lives because sedimentary rock contains the natural resources that we utilize,” she said. “And without healthy soil, we won’t have food. I like to use hands-on experiences to help make these truths real to my students.”