‘Learning by doing’ education

forestlake

Saturday, October 12, 2013
By Amanda Lillie alillie@swpub.com

International explorer, educator and environmentalist Will Steger cut the ribbon during the grand-opening of the Environmental Learning Center on Oct. 2. Steger later spoke at Shakopee High School.

“We have a lot of active kids who do a lot of things with the outdoors, but we want to make them more aware.”

An apple orchard, rain barrels, compost bins, beehives, raspberry and blackberry patches, several gardens and a medicine wheel — not many people associate these things with a typical classroom.
But for teachers Billy Koenig and Ed Loiselle, compost bins and beehives are a part of their classes every day at the Shakopee High School Environmental Learning Center (ELC).

The ELC is a one-room classroom that stands alone on the edge of the high school’s campus; it just started hosting classes last semester. From the road, it looks like a small, plain building surrounded by open space. But up close, it’s easy to see how much work has been put into the classroom and the land around it.
On any given day, students can be found outside the ELC collecting bugs, tending to their gardens, building fences for the beehives or sneaking a taste of fresh raspberries from the patch growing in the medicine wheel.

Koenig and Loiselle, who co-teach a class about environmental ethics and ecology, call this “place-based education,” or hands-on learning.

“We need to push that idea of kids learning by doing,” Koenig said. “This is a snapshot of a bigger picture with the high school — that we are moving toward a learn-by-doing education. And I’m very proud to be a part of a staff that does that.”

Five years in the making
While the ELC only recently opened for classes, it has been in the works for five years. A $50,000 Lowe’s grant made construction possible at the start of the project in 2008, and the ELC slowly came together from there, according to Loiselle.
The Shakopee School Board approved $50,000 in funding for it in August 2010. The final price tag was around $400,000, with a vast majority of that donated by local businesses and organizations.

The ELC is unique in that it has been more than a school project from the beginning. The Lowe’s grant was enough to build four walls and a foundation, and from there the school district, community and students made it what it is today.
Construction classes at the high school built the classroom itself, Shakopee Public Utilities funded the windmill that powers the classroom, Minnesota Green Landscaping helped with the paths around the classroom and the medicine wheel, and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux donated the apple trees and beehives.

“The community has gotten behind [the ELC] and wanted to add things,” Koenig said. “It hasn’t all been any one person’s idea.”
The students in biology and environmental ethics classes aren’t the only ones who benefit from the ELC, according to Koenig. The rest of the school reaps benefits in secondary ways.

The food that is grown is given to the Family and Consumer Science department for cooking, and special-education classes have helped in the past with planting. Some students even compile compost from the cafeteria for fertilizer.

“We have a lot of active kids who do a lot of things with the outdoors, but we want to make them more aware,” Loiselle said. “You know they’re really immersed if they’re willing to take leadership and ownership of a project.”
‘I’m a lot more involved now’

Getting students out of their regular classrooms and teaching them in a hands-on way isn’t the only reason Koenig and Loiselle are happy they have the ELC at their disposal, though. Both teachers want their students to have a vested interest in something they learn in the class. They want students to make a connection between the environmental activities they enjoy and how to maintain an environment in which those activities are possible in the future.
“Because I have a vested interest in fly fishing, I have an interest in making sure there’s cold, clean water for the trout,” Loiselle said.

That’s why Koenig’s and Loiselle’s environmental ethics class spends a lot of time outdoors and even on field trips. Koenig and Loiselle encourage their students to collaborate with organizations like the University of Minnesota Master Gardeners so they not only learn more about the environment but also about collaboration and leadership.

Loiselle said he and Koenig aren’t out to push an environmental agenda; instead, they teach the students to look at environmental issues from several angles, including economic and social, so each student can decide for themselves where he or she stands.

“You talk about immersing and connecting the kids to where they live, and then you have an active citizen on your hands,” said Loiselle.
Rachel Johnson, a senior in the environmental ethics class, said despite not being much of a science person, she has really enjoyed the class so far.
“I had people recommend it to me,” she said. “I’m not going to have a career in the environment or anything, but I’m a lot more involved now and not just sitting there bored and listening.

“It’s a lot easier for me to learn it hands-on.”

Johnson said one of her favorite class activities thus far was a trip to an organic farm in Shakopee. On the trip, the students picked pumpkins and squash and donated the food to the Scott-Carver-Dakota CAP Agency.

“This is fun,” Johnson said. “I’m happy they put so much effort into [the ELC].”
Johnson’s take on the class is what Koenig and Loiselle were going for when they envisioned teaching at the ELC.
“If they’re active, it’s a whole lot better than doing nothing,” Loiselle said.
“You can either fight [students’ attention spans], or you can get them out and doing things,” Koenig added.

View the article online here.

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