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Taking learning OUTSIDE

OSU students design hands-on learning garden at Westwood Elementary in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

By Kaci Livingston – Seiling, Oklahoma

Cowboy Journal
College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Oklahoma State University
Volume 20 Number 1 . Winter/Spring 2018

 

With the help of Oklahoma State University landscape architecture students, children at Westwood Elementary in Stillwater, Oklahoma, can take their learning outside to an interactive learning center.

The idea for an outdoor learning garden developed because of Principal Darren Nelson’s hope for students to have a gardening experience. He decided the school’s dreary courtyard would provide the perfect space for the learning center, he said.

“The original idea was for students to have the chance to experience growing plants from start to finish,” Nelson said, “and for students to witness the connection between planting the seeds and growing vegetables.”

After further discussion with parents and teachers, Nelson approached Michael and Kim Holmes for help. Michael Holmes is the program director and an associate professor of landscape architecture at OSU. Kim Holmes is the former assistant director of The Botanic Garden at OSU and former host of “Oklahoma Gardening.” The Holmeses also had a child at Westwood Elementary at the time.

Soon the Westwood Elementary community rallied around the garden idea by offering to help, and the project progressed, Nelson said.

Michael Holmes said his landscape architecture students at OSU used the project as a learning opportunity, and members of landscape architecture honor society Sigma Lambda Alpha started creating designs.

Michael Holmes said about 10 students were involved in the design of the learning center and 16 in its construction. The students involved in building were enrolled in his Construction 3: Materials and Methods course.

“They first competed hand-drawn sketches of what the learning center would look like,” Michael Holmes said. “Then we used design software to come up with the more exact dimensions and plants.”

Michael Homes said he made moderate adjustments to the designs so they could be built feasibly.

“My students were designing an experience for the students at Westwood,” Holmes said.

After the designs reached completion, the plan for the outdoor learning center included raised gardening beds, a sandbox, an arbor, a science exploration center, a weather station, a xylophone bench, a music and sound station, and a collection of regular seating benches.

The OSU students, along with Boy Scout Troop No. 828 of Stillwater, Westwood Parent Teacher Association members and Westwood school administration, spent a few days building the outdoor learning center in summer and fall 2016.

“Often, as students, we design projects that will never be built,” said Stephanie Stoner, a landscape architecture senior from Stillwater. “Seeing the designs come to life and being a part of the building process was a dream come true.”

Michael Homes said his students learned a variety of skills throughout the design and building process.

“These college students were able to see what it was like to work on a project and build professionalism along the way,” Michael Holmes said.

Nelson said the learning center project took “all hands on deck.”

Kim Holmes was instrumental in deciding what plants could thrive in the space, Michael Holmes said.

With the garden flourishing and the formation of a new gardening club, teachers and administrators are learning as they go, Nelson said.

Nelson said the plants thrived and the students enjoyed the garden throughout the 2016-2017 school year.

“We were encouraged to have a person or a group take ownership of the learning center,” Nelson said. “I approached the Grandparents Association and asked if they would be interested, and they were.”

Nelson said the gardening club, which includes Westwood students, now takes care of the outdoor learning center.

“One grandparent, Jodi Deer, has really taken charge,” Nelson said. “She is the one who has organized the after-school gardening club.

“We started with a simple idea,” Nelson said. “It grew so much after more people got involved.”

Nelson said OSU students were instrumental in the planning and implementation processes.

“The help from the OSU landscape architecture students is irreplaceable,” Nelson said, “and I think it shows how much people in the community care about our students’ education.

“It is very much trial and error,” Nelson said. “The gardening club has really stepped up, and we are figuring it out.”

The garden has sweet potatoes, tomatoes and pumpkins growing throughout fall 201`7.

While the garden is a focus of the outdoor space, the total outdoor learning center encourages exploration of science, technology, engineering and math subjects through its multiple interactive stations.

“The kids love the sandbox and the weather station,” said Michael Homes.

“We hope the stations can spark an interest in learning about science and nature.”

The landscape architecture students involved hope students will explore the STEM stations and develop a curiosity for those subjects.

“The hope is that these experiences will encourage them to explore their surroundings,” said Payton Wynes, landscape architecture senior.

Nelson said the children are interested in the colorful learning stations.

“The outdoor learning center is very visually interesting to the students,” Nelson said. “I think this is one of the reasons they like being out there so much.”

The learning center especially helps students with special needs, Nelson said.

“The teachers are still trying to figure out how to incorporate the learning center into their lessons,” Nelson said, “but the special education teachers have loved having the outdoor space.”

Nelson said one student with special needs likes to sweep the area and takes pride in keeping the space clean.

“Some students learn best by reading, some by hearing, and some by doing,” said Xochilyn Davis, landscape architecture senior. “This learning center will offer students the chance to learn with an experiment station.”

Nelson said he is grateful for the community outreach displayed during this entire project.

“The college students gaining experience while helping elementary students was special,” Nelson said.

As a Stillwater native, Stoner said being a part of this project was rewarding.

“I loved giving back to a community that has shaped me as a person,” Stoner said. “I got to use my talents and skills I have learned at OSU while doing it.”

Nelson said the gardening club has increase from eight to 28 students in just one year. He said he hopes the club and the garden will continue to grow for years to come.