Outdoor classroom takes learning off the page and into students’ hands

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Right along the banks of the Hillsborough River Bypass Canal sits Terrace Community Middle School. Students, however, walk in the front door and many never notice the water and natural woodland area behind the school. That is all changing.

Every Friday, the seventh graders at the school head out the back door to help create an outdoor classroom.

“We’re making trails. We made one trail here and one trail there, and we’re going to connect them,” said seventh grader Sashank Mannava.

That once neglected area is slowly transitioning into a learning environment to take learning off the pages and into the students’ hands.

“For physics, it’s hard to figure that out, but if you pull a branch or a vine, it has an opposite reaction. They’re going to do a jungle Newton’s Law,” said Meichelle Long. Long is the IT Director at the school and wrote the grants to get funding for this outdoor classroom.

The seventh graders working hard to create this classroom are even learning while they work. As they plant bald cypress trees, teachers explain the type of environment where this type of tree thrives. For the remainder of the school year, students will revisit these trees.

“They’re going to have science stations to collect data and do measurements on their trees,” said Long.

An outdoor classroom provides an important hands-on understanding of concepts, but it also promotes team-building and better communications skills as students work together on projects.

“We had bird watching, so I learned a lot of new animals and what goes on while we’re in the classroom,” said seventh grader Emily Schwartz.

Science teachers at the school are excited because many of the concepts learned in this classroom fit with their lessons of biology and ecology.

Mannava explains what he’s already learned, “The different species of plants, and which ones are invasive and which ones are actually native.”

While the outdoor classroom will center around science, other programs will use it. Writing classes will use the trees and outdoor surroundings as inspiration, and art classes can even use the material found outside in their creations.

The outdoor classroom at TCMS is not just a school effort, but it is bringing the community in to help. Grants from Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Suncoast Native Plant Society, Terrace Garden Club, and Tampa and Clearwater Audubon Societies helped fund the classroom, but those same organizations are also providing mentoring and volunteer support to the students.

As the seventh graders set up this classroom, they are leaving a living legacy of learning.

“They’ve already said today, ‘When we come back in 10 years will we still see our tree?’ recalled Long. She replied “Absolutely.”

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