Future Waseca students might be seeing more time outdoors during school hours than their older classmates saw.
The Waseca School Board adopted a resolution on Sept. 23 to pursue a new educational partnership between the school district and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in order to take advantage of about 70 acres of land west of the school, along the bike trail and former railroad.
“Over the past several years we haven’t really utilized that land as opportunistically as we could,” said Superintendent Eric Hudspith.
The new partnership involves the DNR’s the School Forest program, which offers participating school districts assistance in utilizing their outdoor property for educational purposes. This ranges from assistance with land management to outdoor and environmental education, as well as offering a number of other resources.
School districts can also work with the DNR to develop a long-term stewardship plan on the forest.
In order to be approved with the DNR for those benefits, the School Board only had to pass the resolution saying it is designating the land for outdoor education as described by the School Forest program, which the board did.
Responding to hesitation from the School Board about involvement with the DNR, Hudspith reassured board members that the partnership does not relinquish any decision-making control regarding how the land is utilized. Rather, it merely allows the district to tap into resources that would help it take optimal advantage of the land by turning it into an outdoor classroom, a practice requiring considerable expertise.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re locked into anything,” Hudspith said. “It makes us eligible for DNR support should we want it.”
Benefits of nature
For Dave Abel, a biology teacher at Waseca High School, the outdoor classroom is an opportunity for all Waseca Public School students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, to experience the educational benefits of the natural world.
“There’s just so many possibilities out there,” Abel said. “The opportunity to do things like field studies and gathering data in a real-world setting, and to have that space be very close — that’s the real benefit.”
The proximity is key, Abel added, since it means students will not have to forgo valuable class time by driving a longer distance to an alternate outdoor setting.
The outdoor classroom can be used for many different educational purposes, including natural interpretation, wherein students observe and learn about the natural habitat they live in. It can also be used for purposes that might not be considered explicitly educational, but can be beneficial for education, such as giving students the chance to unplug and reset after a day confined within the walls of the school building.
With the resolution only recently adopted by the School Board, the timeline for the outdoor classroom is still a long one. Abel anticipates this next year will mostly be used to establish a framework for how the land will be used, collecting community feedback and making plans with the DNR to put everything in its right place before implementation begins. That next step, Abel said, will likely happen at the beginning of next school year.
“It’s a blank canvas,” Abel said. “There’s work to be done, to revitalize it to make it a workable space … our kids will be involved in doing that kind of work, getting things to a usable place, and after that there’ll be maintenance.”
By involving students in the process, he added, the outdoor classroom will offer more than opportunity to explore scientific concepts — it will teach them to work together to build something.