First graders Gavin Lawson and Catherine Young took turns looking through the microscope at plant stalks and corn kernels.
Gavin had looked under a microscope before because his brother had one, he said. But Catherine, like most of her classmates at Grandview Elementary School, had never used one before.
“It was really fun,” she said. “I bet you could put a piece of grass in it and it would look great.”
Tuesday saw the first official school field trip to the new outdoor learning lab on the Bloomington campus of Ivy Tech Community College, where 60 first-grade Grandview students learned to anatomy of potted plants and flowers to bring to their families.
The trip complemented student curricula while helping Ivy Tech staff advance the goal of making the space at 501 N. Profile Parkway a comprehensive outdoor classroom.
Ivy Tech volunteers launched the groundbreaking last May for the outdoor lab. Since then, the space has been open to the public but did not have as many visitors as it did on Tuesday. Sarah Cote, who led the project, said the space will be available for more field trips and youth organizations this summer and next school year. It also serves as an educational space for biology students at Ivy Tech.
The project started last year as a passion for Cote, who was a professor and chair of the department of biology and biotechnology before becoming dean of several departments at Ivy Tech.
So far, various organizations across the county, such as the Bloomington Community Foundation and Monroe County, have pumped about $31,000 into the project, Cote said. The George E. Archer Foundation, which provides grants to support horticulture education for young adults, also recently donated $10,000.
While some first graders planted red, orange, and yellow flowers for what would soon become a “floor is lava” play park, others read books and learned vocabulary words like “plant” and “abscisic acid” with volunteer Ivy Tech students.
Grandview Elementary was recognized last year as one of 88 STEM accredited schools in Indiana. Each quarter, students focus on a new unit called the STEM Network, said first grade teacher Heather White. She said this school year’s latest STEM webinar, called “Plant, Grow and Thrive,” prepared students for the field trip.
“The kids learned about the parts of flowers, they planted them, they drew diagrams, they watched videos,” White said. “All the students, but primarily the elementary grades, are starting to get that hands-on feeling, and I think that excites them for the future.”
While students get a lot of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) experience in school, many students at Grandview come from low-income families and may not have the same opportunities as students from other areas if not on field trips, as she said.
“It gives these kids an opportunity they might not have otherwise,” White said.
Nearly 50% of students at Grandview were considered economically disadvantaged during the 2020-2021 school year, compared to about 35% of students at Monroe County Community School Corp. , according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.
White said that while future first graders will continue to visit the outdoor learning lab on field trips, current first graders will be able to see how the space grows as they grow.
“With our school on the road, knowing these kids can come here and watch this process they start to grow…my heart is so full,” she said.
In the next few years, Cote said, the outdoor learning lab will feature a gravel play pit, an outdoor dollhouse, a zoom station, plexiglass plant root display stations, and several gardens for butterflies, bees and birds.
Although the lab is open to the public, most people who have visited so far are just people walking by and noticing it, Kott said. In the future, the space will have scheduled programming for youth organizations, such as Boy Scouts of America.
She added that the space will also feature wooded walking paths, an indigenous tree nursery and a picnic pavilion in hopes of attracting visitors of all ages. Work in the lab will continue through the summer.
“Hopefully this place will look a lot different this time next year,” Cote said.
Contact Kristen Stephenson at [email protected]