The outdoors has taken on a new level of importance this year as the pandemic has forced people to socially distance and avoid crowded indoor spaces. After many months of learning from home, students have made it back inside school buildings, but educators are teaching students beyond the school walls.
Students at McKinley Elementary School now have a space to learn outside thanks to a collective of staff and parents. The space is one of many outdoor learning environments at Owatonna schools. These spaces create areas for exploring and hands-on learning, as well as provide an alternative with more space to spread out for social distancing in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Construction on the outdoor shelter at McKinley Elementary was completed a few weeks ago. A vegetable garden sits adjacent to the shelter. The project was funded in part by the No Child Left Inside grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources with help from the McKinley PTO.
Valerie Seath, a second grade teacher and member of the McKinley garden team, helped organize the outdoor learning space, alongside many other supporters. The garden team worked to create a community garden and a list of things they wanted for the outdoor environment. Most teachers responded on a survey that they would use the space if created.
“It was really neat to see everybody with a common purpose, everybody was on the same page that, yes, outdoor learning space is the right thing to do, the kids need to be in the fresh air and experiencing nature,” Seath said.
She shared the results with the McKinley PTO, helped organize quotes and the project was eventually approved. Although the project slowed a bit because of the pandemic, Seath was still determined to get the project completed.
District STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Education Coordinator Tom Meagher designed the space, which was built by Mohs Construction. Drawing inspiration from Native American architecture, which often is circular, Meagher designed the seating to create a sense of equality where students could learn from one another as well as their teacher. There is equality in everyone’s ideas, thoughts and discussion in this circular set up, Meagher said.
“In a circle, everyone can hear each other, everyone can listen and speak and have equal standing,” Meagher said. “It’s open, but it’s shaded so then that way students can be out there without being blinded by the sun or hit by rain.”
Both Meagher and Seath hope students understand that nature can be a refuge. They also hope students will become lifelong stewards of the environment.
“I hope that it connects them with nature and that they can be sort of aware of their surroundings and again an appreciation of the outdoors and then learn some of those things, like cause and effect, these higher-level thinking skills,” Seath said.
Outdoor learning expands across the district
The new McKinley outdoor learning space is the latest in a string of outdoor learning spaces at Owatonna schools. The first space consisted of a 5,000-square-foot area at the old McKinley building, now Washington Elementary, in 2015. Current Washington teachers still incorporate the plot into their curriculum. Meagher says prior to the construction of the outdoor learning area, the plot of land often struggled with rain drainage. Thus the land provided a chance to teach students about bioengineering via planting a rain garden. Additionally the middle school location has about 1,000 feet of trails paved with recycled asphalt.
Later Meagher took his concept to the Owatonna Middle School to convert an acre of land into an outdoor learning space, complete with a pollinator garden, tall grass prairie, short grass prairie and rain garden. The area’s rain garden percolates and cleans runoff water that enters the area before it makes its way to local rivers and waterways. An arboretum has also been planted along the north side of the acre with over 24 different species of native trees and shrubs.
“You look at the trees now and they’re cute, because they are like 15 feet tall, but in like five years we’re going to be looking at a true forest and arboretum where every tree species is a different Minnesota native species so kids can come out and not only see what a maple and an oak looks like, but a hackberry, tamarack, hawthorn, all these species that you might see in books, we want them to see in person,” Meagher said.
For Owatonna Middle School science teacher Ray Heinz, creating these spaces is all about getting kids outside and providing opportunities for students who might have not otherwise have the means to experience nature. The school outdoor learning spaces creates a microcosm, where students can create their own experience with nature.
“I just think the big economic difference in the students that we have coming in, like we definitely have students that, every couple of weekends, are up at a cabin up north or outside or are more familiar with the outdoors and then for some of the kids I take to Kaplan’s Woods and it’s the first time they have ever been in a wooded area,” Heinz said.
The spaces allow students to reconnect with nature and become stewards for the environment. Numerous studies have shown spending time in nature has proven to be good for psychological well being and emotional health.
Owatonna schools incorporate other foundations of STEAM
Meagher says STEAM is more than just learning about science, technology, engineering, arts and math, but rather figuring how to integrate these topics into everyday thinking. With that in mind, the spaces have really incorporated the fields of different disciplines.
“What we needed to figure out was, what did we need to do not only to make a great outdoor learning space for the science-focused classes, but think about if we want to get the art classes, and the English classes and the special ed classes out there, what kind of things do we need,” Heinz said.
The middle school space was created with help and input by teachers in various disciplines, as a result the space is now used for a variety of classes. Several other people were involved in the funding, organizing, planting and designing of the district’s outdoor learning spaces. For example, students used their artistic skills to design where the various plants would go based on their species, color and growing height. Plants were strategically chosen to create a space with color throughout the growing season.
“So the fall color out here was as beautiful during the height of the flower season,” Meagher said.
Kids have also been using technology such as game cameras in the outdoor classroom to gauge what animals are now using the space habitat. While other classrooms are starting their unit on rocks and using learned skills to identify the boulders placed throughout the learning space.
Meagher hopes that these outdoor learning spaces continue to encourage kids to get outside and explore nature, learn about their own impact on the environment and become stewards for the environment.
While most of the work on the Owatonna Middle School outdoor learning space was completed in 2019, Meagher and Heinz say they still plan on putting up fencing around the perimeter, adding some signage and planting some shade trees near the benches.
When one door closes another opens, and for Owatonna’s downtown this rings true as a business moves in to fill a space left vacant earlier this year.
Pets and Fish, a longtime pet store that has been located on South Cedar near Godfather’s Pizza for the last 15 years, has relocated and opened up shop in the former Party Plus Crafts store downtown. The party shop closed up permanently in June following the retirement of owner Luann Anderson. The store had been a staple in Owatonna’s downtown district since 1997.
“That is a key location and was a retail business that had been there for such a long time. ... When it closed it was definitely noticeable and in a space you don’t want to see empty for very long,” said Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “The nice thing with a pet store business, though, is they tend to be destination-type stores. It will draw people to our downtown, so that’s a real added bonus.”
Though it is never easy to see a business leave a downtown, for Jeremy Amundson it was the sign he needed to tell him it was time to take the leap to upgrade to downtown real estate.
“There are so many good things about downtown,” said Amundson, who has owned Pets and Fish for the past seven years. “A lot has been going on down here for a while, and I know they get a lot of foot traffic on weekends and people coming from out of town, so that’s a real benefit.”
Though the downtown building is slightly smaller than his previous location, Amundson said it seems to be a perfect fit thus far. The smaller space allows him to stay more organized, and its air exchange system will keep the building smelling clean. Despite the smaller space, Amundson said he still plans to offer his full line of supplies and services, as well as carry fish, birds, reptiles and small pets.
Throughout his life, Amundson had an affinity for all animals. Growing up, he said his pets were whatever he could catch outside, refusing to discriminate against any creature. Coming from a large family, Amundson said he remembers making it clear at a young age that he wanted a career with animals.
“It was at Christmas or some other family gathering that someone made the comment about starting a big family business and everyone said we should do a restaurant,” Amundson said. “Except me, I said a pet store.”
As he grew up, Amundson said he developed a deeper passion and appreciation for fish, leading him to shopping frequently at the Pets and Fish store. Still holding on to his childhood dream of working with animals, Amundson struck up a conversation with the former owner of the store one day to figure out what it takes to run a pet shop.
“She told me it was for sale,” Amundson laughed. “So I took a chance to do something more with something that always brought enjoyment to my life – pets. It’s been a win-win and I’ve really liked it.”
Though COVID-19 brought a slew of obstacles for small business owners, Amundson said he was one of the lucky ones who was able to flourish during the pandemic.
“Pet stores are always slow in the spring and summer, but with the pandemic people were stuck at home,” Amundson said. “They found themselves wanting someone to talk to, they needed new friends. I’m glad I was able to help them with that.”
A Medford man, who has an ongoing sexual assault case in Steele County, is now facing an allegation of sexual assault in Waseca County.
Devon Taylor Sather, 20, has been charged with felony third-degree criminal sexual conduct stemming from an incident in Waseca County on July 28. There is a warrant for his arrest in Waseca County with no set court date. However, Sather is currently being held in the Steele County Jail for a misdemeanor theft charge in March. A warrant was issued for his arrest in Steele County on Aug. 19 after he failed to appear at a court hearing and he was arrested Sept. 1. The criminal complaint for the criminal sexual conduct was filed in Waseca County on Sept. 2. He has also been charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct and first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Steele County following an incident on Oct. 1, 2019.
The Waseca County victim told police that Sather sent her a text message asking if she wanted to have sex and she responded no, prior to him arriving at her apartment to hang out, according to the criminal complaint. They went into her apartment when he arrived and she opened a package that had a new shirt in it. Sather followed her when she was putting the new shirt away in her room, according to the complaint. When she walked out of her room, Sather walked her back into her room, pushed and grabbed her left arm with both hands, according to the complaint. After the victim said no, Sather allegedly sexually assaulted the victim in her room, according to the complaint.
In Steele County, the victim told police that she and Sather were sitting on the couch while Sather played video games and she watched, according to the criminal complaint. While sitting on the couch, Sather allegedly touched her thigh and she moved away. Shortly after this, Sather sexually assaulted her on the couch, threatened to hurt her if she told anyone of the assault and then left the residence, according to the complaint.
He has a settlement conference for the Steele County theft and sexual assault charges scheduled for Jan. 14 and a jury trial scheduled for Jan. 19.
He has previously been found guilty of criminal sexual conduct in a case that began in Blue Earth County in 2018, but was moved to Steele County. He had sexual contact with a girl who was more than 24 months younger than him and was younger than the consenting age of 16, according to court records.