Students make use of nature’s classroom

Students from Kay Burrell’s fifth-grade class sit next to the detention pond Monday, recording what they see and hear.  - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Students from Kay Burrell’s fifth-grade class sit next to the detention pond Monday, recording what they see and hear.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

Kay Burrell’s fifth-grade class buzzed with excitement on Mon-day afternoon as the single-file line of kids approached a small detention pond just beginning to fill from the autumn rain. Surrounded by thick woods, only the noise of the playground in the distance reminded the students bundled in sweatshirts and raincoats that they were still near their elementary school.

Circling the water, the children quieted. Some stood and others sat in the grass as Burrell asked them to write in their science journals about what had changed at the pond since their last visit, about a month ago when the pond was dry and the grass and bushes around it a different color.

Suddenly Burrell stopped mid-sentence. “Shhh. Listen,” she said. “What’s that?”

“A frog,” one boy shouted out as a Pacific tree frog continued to chirp nearby.

“That’s a good thing about being quiet when you’re a scientist,” Burrell said with a smile.

At a time when school funding is tight and many extracurricular programs are threatened, the fifth graders are learning about science at the school district’s new living pond, an outdoor classroom made possible by a King County Waterworks grant the district received in 2009.

At that time the detention pond — built in the woods behind the school in 1993 to capture runoff from the Chautauqua Elementary and McMurray Middle School campuses — lay barren as it was regularly cleared of vegetation to comply with county code. But since the school district got special permission from the county to use the area as an outdoor learning space, the pond has slowly sprung to life.

High school interns funded by the grant and led by David Warren of the Vashon Forest Stewards cleared blackberry bushes and Scotch broom that surrounded the area’s perimeter. With help from high school horticulture students and Master Gardener volunteers, they planted native trees and shrubs around the pond, which swells to about half the size of a football field in the spring.

Though many of the plants are young and short, chain link fences are visible and some areas are covered in black tarp, the pond is already a wilder place. Insects, ducks and other birds have moved into the area in larger numbers, and native frog and newt eggs were introduced there.

Burrell’s students, taking in the sights at the pond with wide eyes and smiles, pointed out mushrooms and new plants they observed in the water, and some thought they saw tadpoles swimming around.

“It’s a lot funner than staying in the classroom,” said Gracie Zenner, a fifth-grader in Burrell’s class. “It’s funner than looking at the book and seeing a picture. Instead of looking at a book, you can really see it.”

The fifth graders have started utilizing the pond by practicing simple observations. In the spring they will study amphibians there as part of Chautauqua’s new school-wide science curriculum, which was also funded by the Waterworks grant and written by Islander Trish Howard.

Howard, who has volunteered at Chautauqua as a science coach, said it’s been a longtime dream of hers to see the school have a stronger science curriculum that takes advantage of the school’s garden, large surrounding forest and detention pond. Her new curriculum, which she developed after receiving training that was also funded by the grant, gets every grade level out of the school building and into the outdoors.

“It’s probably one of the best outdoor classrooms in the state,” Howard said.

Burrell said she was thrilled to see the pond incorporated into the new science curriculum. In the spring her students will scoop up its water and study it under microscopes, looking for microscopic life. They’ll each develop their own investigations about the pond habitat, attempting to answer questions such as how the water temperature influences what creatures live there.

“It’s pretty rare that you have a school in an environment like this,” Burrell said. “Being able to access it and take advantage of the opportunity is wonderful.”

Doug Swan, another fifth-grade teacher, said he is excited for his class to see what life appears at the pond by next spring. He thinks the new curriculum will get his students even more interested in science.

“What’s great about it is it makes science real in their lives because its right outside our door,” he said.

As Burrell’s class finished their lesson and made the trek back to their classroom, they passed another class of fifth graders and then a multi-age class making their way down the winding trail to the pond.

Roxanne Lyons, the district’s curriculum director and one of the driving forces behind the pond project, said fourth-graders now visit the pond as part of their science lessons as well, and some high school science electives will take field trips there to do more advanced investigations and practice using tools such as water-testing devices. The pond won’t be used exclusively for science, however. Some elementary teachers, Lyons noted, have already taken their younger students to the pond for simple outdoor activities such as writing nature poetry.

“It will be used across the district,” she said.

She believes the opportunity to study science hands-on will get more students of all ages interested in science and perhaps encourage some to pursue continued study in the field.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for kids to learn to be field scientists basically. ... I hope that in the process we create more scientists. We get kids who didn’t know how fun science could be and inspire them to study science,” she said.

Though about $20,000 of the $73,000 Waterworks grant has been dedicated to the pond and new science curriculum, Lyons hopes future grants and continued volunteer work will allow the district to maintain the pond and even make improvements there. She envisions a day when plants are tall, the chain link fence is torn down and nearby sits an amphitheater that could double as a classroom space and concert area.

“It’s another Vashon gem, and we’ll share it with the kids,” she said.


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