OWATONNA — Thursday was the final day of classes in the Owatonna school district, but students at Owatonna Middle School spent portions of their last days busily readying an outdoor classroom for next year.

Due to bad weather in May, the project was delayed, but “our ultimate goal is for this to be usable by the first day” of the 2019-2020 school year, said Tom Meagher, the district’s STEM coordinator. “In five years, this (entire garden) should be pretty well established.”

Students planted more than 1,000 plants purchased from Steele and Rice County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, as well as from Blazing Star Gardens, Meagher said. Grants from the ISD 761 Foundation, Cabela’s, the Cargill Foundation, Tree Trust, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, among others, added up to roughly $20,000 to construct the outdoor classroom.

On Monday, Tree Trust personnel, including community forestry specialist Diana Preisen, taught students how to properly plant roughly 30 trees and shrubs. Members of Tree Trust were assisted Monday morning by Steele County master gardeners, as well.

Tree Trust, a non-profit based in St. Paul, has a goal of “transforming lives and landscapes” through tree planting and employment programs, Preisen said. All trees and shrubs planted at the middle school Monday are native to Minnesota, such as tamarack, basswood, oak, sugar maples, spruce, and red cedar.

The native trees and shrubs will contribute to a “school arboretum,” Meagher said. “We’re trying to represent all the Minnesota biomes in one acre,” including a tall-grass prairie and a wetland, the latter of which will act as a “rain garden,” handling moisture from the roof on the east side of the building.

Trails in the outdoor classroom were created by students and made from recycled asphalt to minimize environmental impact, and “we seeded the areas for prairie restoration” last month, he said. “Prairie seeds require real shallow bedding.”

Nearly a dozen Owatonna Middle School teachers are on the “outdoor classroom committee” that has met monthly since January to coordinate schedules, and several of their classes have worked in the school garden, Meagher said. “We have a large group of teachers interested in maintaining” the outdoor classroom, including from areas like special education and physical education.

The outdoor classroom is a place where students “can learn about biomes in Minnesota,” Preisen said. “They can see the trees through all the seasons, too.”

Trees in the outdoor classroom can benefit students in a litany of ways, said Hailey Kjersten, a student in the middle school’s Animal Behaviors class. For example, trees improve air quality, cool temperatures, and can even improve mental and emotional health.

“This is actually important,” echoed Kjersten’s classmate, Kamryn Fitcher. “Trees really benefit people.”

Planting trees in Minnesota is especially critical, now, as the invasive emerald ash borer stands poised to “decimate trees” all over the state, Preisen said. “We need to get new trees in the ground.”

In addition to watering, proper depth when planting trees is paramount, Preisen said. “We want them to get big and mature.”

“I’ve definitely gotten more experience planting trees, which could help in the future,” and “it’s cool to have this in our school,” said seventh-grader John Jirele said. “Not many schools have a big outdoor classroom” on site.

It’s “good experience to get into nature,” said Anna Fox, a student in Animal Behaviors. “It’ll be cool to see how it (eventually) turns out.”

The “big thing is getting (students) committed to land stewardship,” said Ray Heinz, a science teacher at Owatonna Middle School who brought his Animal Behavior class out to plant trees Monday morning. “Even for non-science classes, this is an area we’ll all use.”

The outdoor classroom teaches all manner of skills, Heinz said. A life science class did surveying of the area to map out elevations, for example, and in his Animal Behaviors section, Heinz and his students discussed the type of animals one might find in these biomes, from bees and butterflies, to birds and squirrels.

Since the middle school is an E-STEM school, it’s critical all students learn to “preserve and protect our environment,” Meagher said. “We’re trying to get students from all grade levels” in the garden at some point.

The outdoor classroom “can help a lot of people,” Jirele said. Though Jirele resides on a farm and is close to nature daily, many other students “live in town, where there isn’t a lot of green space except parks.”

“For a lot of these kids, this is the first time they’ve picked up a shovel,” Meagher seconded. “They can see what it’s like to plant a living thing.”

In addition to the aid in planting and tree knowledge, having representatives from Tree Trust at Owatonna Middle School also showed interested students they can take an interest like tree planting and parlay that into jobs.

Preisen, for example, has a degree in environmental studies from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and she’s been with Tree Trust for a dozen years, she said. “There are lots of career opportunities.”

“It’s nice to have (Tree Trust) here,” for myriad reasons, Heinz said. “They know how to do this,” and it’s “super slick.”

Eventually, “we’ll build some benches, too, in the central meeting circle” of the outdoor classroom that will be able to seat up to 36 students, Meagher said. “We want to get all kids engaged in this natural environment.”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.

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