A classroom without walls

It doesn’t look like a classroom from afar. It’s just a grassy hill from the window of Kristen Brenneman’s second-grade classroom.

  • Friday, May 30, 2008 2:53pm
  • News

Derek Strom looks for ants on a Douglas fir tree using a loupe in Sierra Heights Elementary School’s outdoor classroom last Wednesday.

Sierra Heights

transforms hill

to Nature Zone

It doesn’t look like a classroom from afar. It’s just a grassy hill from the window of Kristen Brenneman’s second-grade classroom.

But those two acres in the southeast corner of Sierra Heights Elementary will be much more than just a grassy hill when Brenneman’s through with them. They will be, and are already becoming, the school’s outdoor classroom, officially called Nature Zone.

“The goal is for the whole school to be able to use it, and really enjoy it, and really have it be one really nice learning environment for the kids,” Brenneman says.

Brenneman received a $500 Renton Community Foundation grant last year to transform the hill above one of the school’s parking lots into a classroom. That work started with a grubbing party, in which students and community members cleared the area of trash and weeds and planted groundcover. Brenneman’s students later constructed a dry river bed and bench in the classroom’s far corner. They plan to add stepping stones and other benches to that corner, maybe later this year.

Brenneman says a Boy Scout troop cleaned up the area several years ago, adding trails and signs identify-

ing plants, and another sign designating the hilltop Sierra Heights Woodland Trail. But the area had not been improved since the scouts’ visit.

“It was pretty much overgrown,” Brenneman says.

Brenneman recently received another $500 grant — from King County Department of Natural Resources. She plans to use the money to buy native plants to add to the section her class renovated last year.

“Eventually I plan to renovate the whole thing,” she says. “My goal is to do something with it every year. Like a section each year. Maybe plant a garden.”

Brenneman is encouraging Sierra Heights teachers to use the classroom for all subjects. But its original focus was science education.

“I mainly thought of it for inquiry-based science,” she says.

That means observing, exploring and recording data.

Brenneman’s students were doing all sorts of inquiry-based science last week, when they raced up the hill to Nature Zone for an ant picnic.

The second-graders were tasked with creating hypotheses about what types of foods ants were most likely to eat. They then set out food from home. Food like lettuce, oranges, lemons, grapes, tomato, broccoli and bread. Charts tallied what food items were most popular, and if the hypotheses were correct.

Ants were hard to come by on that cold afternoon.

“Let’s find a different spot!” Brian Banuelos-Torres says, urging his group to move out of the shade.

“There’s no ants on our side,” chimes in Timothy Wong, a member of Banuelos-Torres’ group.

Other groups are having more ant success.

“I found an ant!” Anar Ulziibat yells from a nearby log.

Several of his classmates come running, and crouch around the log. They peer down at the red grapes, tomato, lettuce and broccoli. But the ant has disappeared.

“It must have gone under,” Ulziibat says.

Zaire O’Neal’s group is having similar ant disappointments. The group’s food — tucked beneath a tree root — is untouched.

“No ants are over here,” O’Neal says. “Like they don’t even like vegetables or fruit.”

Sydney Jensen’s group is over by a tall tree. Jensen is using a stick to smash up ant food in dirt holes.

“These are little restaurants for the ants,” she says.

What’s her group’s hypothesis?

“Watery and juicy fruits will attract ants ‘cause they can be cut into small particles and are easier to pick up,” Derek Strom and Valerie Erskine say together.

Their hypothesis is holding water. Erskine’s tally shows ants have taken away six oranges and two pieces of bread.

“I think this experiment is going to be a success,” Strom says.

Anar Ulziibat says his group was also successful.

“Our hypothesis was right,” he says. “The ants came to the bigger food before the smaller. The ants came and took the food to the queen to eat.”

Brenneman tags the day’s experiment a success. She plans to use Nature Zone for a couple other science experiments this year, such as one determining the stickiness of slug slime and another involving worms.

Brenneman says her students — especially those students who have trouble sitting still — see Nature Zone as a welcome escape from her indoor classroom. Brenneman also sees it as an escape.

“I don’t like standing in a classroom all day,” she says.

“That’s what I like about this idea — it addresses everyone,” she adds. “It could be math or science or art — they love it.”

Brenneman’s students used Nature Zone earlier this year as a setting for nature paintings.

“I like everything,” Angelica Rodriguez says about Nature Zone.

Brenneman got the idea for an outdoor classroom from an Internet posting by an out-of-state school.

“They said it was the favorite place for students and staff to learn,” Brenneman says. “I thought, ‘How neat is that? We don’t have anything like that at our school.’”

Brenneman hopes more classes and community members begin using Nature Zone as it expands.

“It’s going to enhance the school and community and everything,” she says. “It’s for the school and community to share.”

Emily Garland can be reached at emily.garland@reporternewspapers.com or (425) 255-3484, x. 5052.

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