ST. ANSGAR | The science department at St. Ansgar High school has some big plans for outdoor classrooms, piggybacking off projects they have already begun to implement.
The district’s walking arboretum, comprised of 32 different species of trees, was planted by students. The trees line the town’s walking trail. The trees will soon be tagged with descriptions of each tree, its leaves, and the fruit or nut, if any, that it produces.
In addition, those with smart phones will be able to scan the cards and access data students in St. Ansgar science teacher Justin Huisman’s 8-12 grade science classes have collected over the past five years.
Huisman said the area has given students plenty of opportunities for hands-on learning. They have measured the circumferences of the trees, the crown spread and made descriptive observations as to the physical condition of each of the trees.
Of the 32 species, 21 are native to the state of Iowa, and out of those, eight are oaks, said Huisman.
“This experience gives students the unique opportunity to see firsthand the differences that can occur between subspecies,” Huisman said. “The data is placed on a website, also developed and maintained by students.
“The data shows each of the trees, links to more information on each and the data is collected over a period of years, allowing visitors to the site to track a tree’s progress.”
According to Huisman, yearly updates on each tree are planned, including the addition of photos of students as they work with the trees.
A mini-forest of trees has grown beside the community garden, acting as a nursery, as the trees have grown and developed. The trees, received from the DNR as bare-root seedlings in 2015, were dry and spindly when planted, but with good weather and nurturing from the students, the trees have tripled in size and grown extremely close together.
To prevent the roots from getting tangles and choking each other out, some of the trees have been transplanted to other locations, such as south of the baseball field and west of the football field.
In addition, there are now more trees in the nursery than there is space on the campus and members of the St. Ansgar community are invited to contact Huisman if they have interest in adopting and transplanting a tree onto their property. The trees, once matured, will provide shade and wind blocks on the ground.
Last May term, students focused on transplanting as well as caring for the classroom prairie. The prairie is comprised of a mixture of native seeds, which will grow and mature into a small variation of the native prairies that once covered the majority of Iowa.
“The prairie gives students a chance to study the biology of plants and flowers in a hands on way,” Huisman said. “The prairie would also draw in pollinators which would be beneficial to the trees as well.
“It will also give the students the opportunity to study a living piece of Iowa’s natural history and persevere it on the school grounds.”
The science department was able to obtain the funds for grants for the seeds to plant the prairie, which will take two to three years to grow and develop into blooms. Not only will the prairie benefit those students taking science courses, but the plants will make good subjects for art and photography students looking for still life subjects.
The final addition to the outdoor classroom is still in the planning phase. It would be a greenhouse and outdoor learning space, where students would cultivate a variety of different plants, growing them in the greenhouse in spring and having the opportunity to sell them to bring money back into the program. The greenhouse would not just benefit the science classes but the agriculture students as well.
“We’re getting more and more monotonous in the crops that are grown in Iowa,” Huisman said. “Diversity keeps the pollinators around, we we’ve planted these things on campus to have these native species on school grounds. Kids in each class maintain it and the trees along the walking trail."
Students are able to see which types of trees grow quickly and which take more time, in addition, they are able to study the effects of animals on the trees and see how resilient a tree can be, as in the case of one American plum tree that still bears the scars of being torn apart by deer.
Instead of dying as several other trees on the campus did, the plum sprouted in several different directions, making it look more like a wide bush then a single stemmed tree. A teaching lesson Huisman was able to share with his students."