Outdoors becomes classroom for high schoolers

Posted April 4, 2010 7:48 a.m. EDT
Updated April 4, 2010 8:51 a.m. EDT

Project Education: Edutopia, a partnership between WRAL-TV and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, shows how a Minneapolis high school is turning the outdoors into the classroom.

The School of Environmental Studies teaches all the traditional subjects, but the environment creates a hands-on focus for students in every subjects. The school's location next to the Minnesota Zoo provides plenty of opportunity for field work.

"What we find is it really raises the bar for the kids in their performance," Principal Dan Bodette said. "What we also find is kids tend to remember what they've learned down the road."

In one project, students learned to identify the plants and analyze the condition of a pond next to their school. They then wrote a technical paper and presented their findings to local water commissioners.

Students said the project-based, interdisciplinary studies offer a different way for them to learn.

"I can't learn from a textbook. I don't have the ability to concentrate like that," a student named Amanda said. "Here, with the hands-on activities that we do and the integration of everything into our daily lives, it helps me absorb the information a lot better."

Service is also an emphasis at the school, which was founded in 1994 and is open to children across the Twin Cities.

Ten students acted as official United Nations observers at the December climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In a community project, students tested their knowledge of plant material and trigonometry by identifying plants and measuring the height of trees on city land slated for recreational development.

Teacher Tom Goodwin said that the hands-on approach to learning has caused him to redefine his role.

"I'm a facilitator. I'm a helper. I'm a coach," he said.

Goodwin praised the program for its ability to help students in their personal growth.

"It gives them a great deal of confidence they can do just about anything," he said. "They don't necessarily get better grades, but they develop this sense that this is worthwhile, and they also develop a sense about what they want to do with their lives."