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Outdoor classes on the horizon

A prairie with promise borders Park Rapids schools. A public information session on the project will be held Thursday, Dec. 11. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

By Jean Ruzicka

The Park Rapids classroom is moving to the great outdoors, a prairie learning theater on the horizon.

The school district property encompasses 250 acres and a group of visionaries, aided by a consulting group, has been meeting to determine how to best use the property for “educational, recreational, environmental and cultural” purposes.

Ron Offutt provided $25,000 in funding for a study, engaging RDG Planning and Design of Omaha as well as the students and teachers themselves, in determining the features that will hold appeal for all.

The public is invited to learn about the elements of the emerging design and its implementation from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11 in the high school commons. Members of the RDG group will discuss the vision and the process of its evolution.

Student and teacher survey results will be shared, as will ideas gleaned from the focus group, with representation from the Department of Natural Resources, farmers markets, civic organizations, Soil and Water Conservation District and more.

The overall vision is to engage as many in the community as possible, Mic Ryan, plant manager of Lamb Weston/RDO Frozen, explained of a classroom holding appeal for all ages.

National surveys say most children spend very little or no time observing or interacting in their natural environment and surroundings.

Youth need a nudge to understand the grand magnitude of ecology and agronomy.

An outdoor classroom is an educational facility that can be developed into a natural study grounds for educators, students and anyone interested in the natural environment.

“It’s not a new concept,” said Dave Collins, executive director of Hubbard County Regional Development Commission. It’s a means to better understand the land and environment by integrating the outdoor classroom with curriculum.

An outdoor classroom in the dead of winter? “We could build hoop houses or a greenhouse,” Collins posits.

In the summer, the existing community garden would be planted, seniors and kids alike harvesting the bounty.

Ideas being bandied about have included an amphitheater, engaging the existing windmill and employing solar energy.

“It opens a world of opportunities,” said superintendent Lance Bagstad, who anticipates RDG proposing “challenging but realistic goals” for the outdoor classroom.

“Having an outdoor classroom next to the school would allow us the ability to run ongoing, comparative field experiments,” Century School science teacher Morgan Marcussen said. “It would be great to have students take pride and ownership in something at school that will benefit the community as well.”

Among Marcussen’s suggestions for the school prairie outdoor classroom:

n A pond to collect and identify macro invertebrates, while discussing ways in which they are indicators of water quality;

n At the pond, students would identify amphibians by sight and sound and observe them in their natural environment;

n Identify native plant and tree species growing on the prairie;

n Monitor bird houses and bird feeders;

n Identify birds by sight and sound, students designing experiments, such as food preferences;

n Set up a trail camera to document wildlife;

n A butterfly garden;

n Insect collections;

n Wildlife photography;

n Set up a weather station to collect data;

n Soil sampling;

n Erosion prevention;

n Rock and mineral identification and more.

The “classroom” would incorporate health and wellness, a fitness trail currently in the works at the school.

The project will be completed in phases, Bagstad said, “fitting into the school’s and community’s vision.” A plan is expected to emerge by spring.

Bagstad sees the city’s assets as “an emerald necklace,” citing Heartland Park, the trails, ball fields, the bridges, the cultural sites, the unique downtown and rich logging history. He’s hoping to “string” these jewels via a walking trail in the future.

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