Community brainstorms ideas for Columbia's first nature-based school

Thursday, December 12, 2013 | 9:38 p.m. CST; updated 11:38 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 12, 2013
Mike Szydlowski, science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools, and Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, proposed a plan to build a nature-based school in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. The proposed school would implement nature-oriented lesson plans to teach the same subjects that public schools have.

COLUMBIA — Ideas for Columbia's first nature-based school were bounced around Thursday evening at an open house where parents, teachers and community members provided their input for the school.

Visitors were able to walk around to five stations related to different aspects in planning the nature school to brainstorm ideas. Some of the ideas submitted at the event included:

Park activities for students

  • Animal tracking
  • Compost education
  • Portable ropes course
  • Conservation restoration
  • Weather prediction
  • Wildlife and habitat monitoring and management

Building design and materials

  • Windows throughout to incorporate outside into inside
  •  A place to observe items brought in from the park
  • Constructed as environmentally friendly as possible
  • Lots of stone, wood and earthly materials
  • A library, reference area and a herbarium of plants

Building's external environment

  • Porch or covered outdoor space
  • Area dedicated for a garden space
  • Weather station
  • Pond for fishing and/or pond studies
  • A stand for a farmer's market

Public use of the building

  • Summer school enrichment program
  • Usage for Future Farmers of America, Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts
  • Evening nature courses
  • Class field trips for students not attending
  • Space for businesses to use for educational or community training

Partnerships and sponsorships

  • Missouri Environmental Education Association
  • City of Columbia's Office of Sustainability
  • MU's School of Natural Resources
  • Missouri Department of Conservation
  • Columbia Farmers' Market

Instead of going to their usual school each day, 100 fifth graders could attend the nature-based school in Rock Bridge State Memorial Park if they were chosen from a lottery system.

The Columbia School Board first talked about the idea of a nature school during a regular session meeting on Sept. 19.

The nature school, which would be a partnership between Columbia Public Schools and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, would teach the district's current curriculum but classes would use nature-oriented lessons, according to previous Missourian reporting.

"Right now a lot of our curriculum is taught language arts time, math time, science time, so we want to break that down," Mike Szydlowski, science coordinator for the district said. "You’re going to go out in the field and learn science, but then you’ll read and write about that science, you’ll do math about that science and learn the history of the science."

Szydlowski said the district would choose existing teachers who already work well to engage students with science to be the teachers in the school's four classrooms. He said about 36 Columbia Public School teachers have already expressed an interest in the positions.

Once the teachers are selected they will go through place-based education, which is  using your surroundings to learn, Szydlowski said.

"We do these Grand Teton science trips with kids, and we are going to take the teachers selected on the trip to show modeling out in the outdoors and do a teacher learning training there," Szydlowski said.

Marcia Arnel, a seventh-grade science teacher at Lange Middle School, attended Thursday's open house and provided a few ideas.

"I think we are in kind of that high-technology, losing touch with nature mode," Arnel said. "It's important to get kids back to their roots to understand the importance of conservation and the environment."

Arnel said she likes the idea of the program because it will break down the stereotype that science is its own entity.

"Through this type of program, they would see how science relates to absolutely everything," Arnel said. "Science helps us understand the world in all capacities."

District administrators and Missouri State Parks officials will form a team to implement some of the community's ideas into the school's design and curriculum. Missouri State Parks is a division of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, said he hopes that once the nature school is built, it will be more friendly and sustainable than the buildings that are there now. He said a few of the buildings in the school's future location will be salvaged.

"The park today has a certain level of environmental impact in terms of runoff and other impacts, Bryan said. "What we build will have less of an impact on the environment than what is currently there."

Szydlowski said the nature school is still set to open in August 2015. The district will begin accepting applications from fourth-grade students late next fall and winter.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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