LEARNING ON 200 ACRES

LEARNING BEYOND THE WALLS OF SCHOOL
Spring 2012

I
nnovation Academy’s classrooms extend far beyond the ivy-covered brick walls. The school’s 200 acres of land offer endless possibilities for learning.

“The land is an amazing classroom for a biology teacher!” says Kellie Burtch, who teaches science at the high school. Students in her classes have embraced the opportunity to explore the trails and wetlands in the school’s backyard.

Throughout the year, Burtch takes her students on seasonal walks on the trails, where they both appreciate and analyze variations in the landscape. “Students are invited to share their observations through creative writing projects and to conduct research on topics they find interesting,” she says. Past topics of research have included plants, animals, and fungi found in the forest. Students have also used a motion camera to capture images of animals that live on campus, including deer, turkeys, raccoons, and beavers. 

In the winter, Burtch’s students learned about tree identification skills and winter survival strategies of plants in New England. As part of the unit, they tapped maple trees on campus and made maple syrup. “Many students and adults are surprised that maple syrup does not flow from the trees. First, watery sap is collected and must be boiled to make the syrup,” Burtch explains. The class went into the woods with drills and placed spigots in the drill holes. Metal sap buckets were hung from trees and were emptied daily by students. Some families helped out with collecting on weekends. “Last year we collected over 220 gallons. This year, we had a shorter season due to the hot March weather and gathered around 80 gallons,” says Burtch.

Northeastern’s Research Experience for Teachers Program provided funding for Burtch to purchase a variety of water testing kits for her students. “Water quality testing and monitoring is a great connection to the nutrient cycling in our Ecology Unit,” she explains. “We have tested bacteria concentrations, as well as nutrient and dissolved oxygen levels in our campus pond.”For the last three years, Burtch’s students have participated in Harvard University’s Budburst Study. They created books and monitored the growth of buds to determine the beginning of the growing season. For six to eight weeks, students spent one class per week sketching and measuring buds. “Students practice recording data, making sketches while observing, as well as practicing tree identification using a dichotomous key,” Burtch says
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Students agree that the school’s land is an amazing classroom. “I get so much more interested and invested in my schoolwork when I’m studying biology outside. It makes me feel like I’m learning on my own, like a real scientist would, instead of being handed all of the information through a textbook,” says Emily Bergman ’14. “A lot of what we’ve done this year revolved around observing the world around us, and having such a huge forest in our backyard makes that so much easier.”

Four biology students elected to earn science honors credit by mapping and improving the trail system. Jared Cote ’14, who initially came up with the proposal, says that he has always loved nature and was drawn to the opportunity to make the school’s trails usable by other classes. 

Joined by Jon Murphy ’14, Derek Landry ’14, and Chris Gibbs ’14, Cote says, “Straight off we knew that this project was going to be fairly massive, and require a huge amount of work. Though the trails were there, they were widely unkempt and overgrown.”

In addition to completing research and learning plant identification skills, every Wednesday, the group spent several hours on the trails after school. Each week, they would focus on one route, raking the trails and removing fallen limbs and debris. “This was especially critical after our October snowstorm that devastated every former route on our campus. We were still cleaning up after that devastation in March!”

The group also focused on the systematic remarking of all of the trails since the old markings were outdated and fading. Cote hopes that all students get to experience the 200 acres he’s come to know so well. “The keen essence of field biology is being out in nature and being able to take a moment to notice life around you: the creatures, fauna, and pure beauty of the moment that you can scarcely get in this world nowadays,” he says.

Over at the middle school, students have also developed an appreciation for the school’s land. This spring, students formed a Garden Club and have worked to build a butterfly garden. Led by Natalie Kelsey, a parent volunteer, students meet weekly after school. The garden, called “El Campo de Mariposa” by the students, was developed near the house on campus, where there used to be a vegetable garden.

In addition to conserving and restoring habitat for native plants and butterflies, “The idea was to eventually have an outdoor classroom space that would serve science and art classes, and be a peaceful place to study and meditate, and enjoy,” says Kelsey. “The point was also to get kids outside in the sun and elements, dirt and leaves, learning about gardening, bugs, and each other. We ended up with so much more!” 

Students planted native nectar plants species of butterflies and moths have been and plants that are considered “host plants" for the caterpillars. So far, the garden has attracted black swallowtail caterpillars, many moth cocoons, and ladybugs and their larvae. Many different species of butterflies and moths have been seen drinking nectar from the flowers. 
“It was enriching to get my hands covered in dirt, knees planted in the ground, and to watch the seeds sprout right before my eyes," says Edith Collins, a seventh                                             grader.