Flat Rock Middle students cultivate learning in outdoor classrooms

Fayette County Schools Flat Rock Middle eighth graders brought nature into the classroom last semester with a biophilic design project, leaving lessons for future classes to experience and build upon.

The class split into groups to build a hydroponic system, two outdoor classrooms and to clean out and improve the ecosystem of a pond — all while learning about the benefits of connecting to nature, Jeff Eller, a Biology teacher at the school, said.

Biophilic design connects people with nature and creates a system where life supports life, Alan Nguyen, a student who took part in the project, said.

“Our main thing that we were keeping focused on was to create a natural outdoor area with which students and teachers can use that is fully integrated with nature,” Nguyen said. “There’s not much man-made things.

Alan Nguyen

Maddie Lohr, another student who participated in the project, said they knew not every student would like the idea of being completely immersed in nature and removing man-made objects, so the class came to a compromise. 

“What we had to do was kind of find a middle ground where the space was clear and usable as a safe outdoor classroom, but also, we weren’t just getting rid of all the plants and nature in the area; we were keeping it a part of nature, but also making it functional as a classroom space,” Lohr said.

Lohr said the class worked on two outdoor classrooms in two separate groups. She said each group researched their steps extensively, changing their methods as discoveries arose. Because the groups were separated by class periods, they used a Google Keep note to stay organized and maintain communication.

Nguyen said a separate group worked on cleaning up a pond on the school’s grounds and making it conducive to life. 

“One of the things they learned early on was that the water doesn’t necessarily have to be crystal clear for it to be clean,” Nguyen said. “It can be a little murky, but that just means that organisms and algae are living in it; that’s what makes the water clean.”

The group learned about certain chemicals and what plants worked as natural filters for the pond, Nguyen said. 

One of the pieces of the project most conducive to learning was the hydroponics system, Nguyen said. Each group combined into one to work to create a nutrient-rich water-based solution of growing plants. 

Eller said the class analyzed a hydroponics system created by a Spring Hill Elementary class, ultimately deciding to create their own. The Spring Hill project will be passed on to a greenhouse at Fayette County High Schools to allow students there to learn about hydroponics.

“Those students will pick up where Flat Rock left off, because they see the need that they need an example,” Eller said. “Whereas Flat Rock looked at it and thought, ‘We don’t see the need for that here, but we see the reason it exists — it’s just not for us.’”

Lohr said a goal of the project was to leave a legacy for future students and teachers and students to experience after their class had moved on. She said from the start, the class aimed for future students to learn from their research and elaborate upon it while maintaining the biophilic design.

Eller, who will be teaching at Fayette County High School next year, said he hopes to bring the idea of biophilic design with him to allow it to gain momentum.

“I’m a teacher by profession, but I’m a learner just because I’m alive,” Eller said. “I can take this idea of biophilic design, and it doesn’t matter where I’m at, what I’m doing, what my role is, what’s around me — the legacy is going to live out whether I’m part of it or not, it’s just bringing more attention to it.”

While the biophilic design project technically came to a close at the end of the 2020-21 school year, both Nguyen and Lohr are continuing work on the project throughout the summer during weekly Garden Club meetings, Eller said.

“I enjoy getting to see the continuation of what we did, even though we’re not necessarily Flat Rock students anymore,” Lohr said. “I like still getting to go and see how the school is evolving and how those things are continuing to grow.”

Both Lohr and Nguyen, rising ninth graders at Sandy Creek High School, said learning in a hands-on manner with more of an emphasis on the experience than grades provided a benefit they haven’t seen in many other classes.

“It was a lot of problem solving and learning to work with other people and not always being told what to do like you might be in some other classes — it’s you have to figure something out yourself, and you have to learn how to do different things and that’s not something that someone’s just going to tell you,” Lohr said. “I think that was really beneficial and something that should be incorporated into more classes.”

To explore Flat Rock Middle’s biophilic design project, visit the website they created here.

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