A group of teachers at the Marie Curie Institute of Engineering and Communications is working to create outdoor classroom space and community gardens.
Last year, art teacher Donna Marek discovered a trail at the east end of the magnet school’s parking lot that lead into a wooded area.
Marek and a group of interested teachers thought it would be good for the elementary school to develop the trails and create outdoor classrooms so the students could learn firsthand about plants, trees, insects and a host of other things outside.
The trails are along 78 acres of land owned by the Greater Amsterdam School District. Marek had to get maps of the land and permission from district administrators to use it.
The trail starts at the Marie Curie parking lot and heads east away from the school. Several yards of overgrown trail turns into woods with thick trees, shrubs and other plants. The trail turns downhill to a drainage creek that was flowing this spring but has since dried up. The trail continues up a steep hill and opens into one of the outdoor classrooms and an open clearing surrounded by trees. Trails continue on in either direction, but neither leads back to the school.
Marek said they hope to develop the trail into a circle that loops back to Marie Curie.
Teachers have already begun to use the trail. Physical education teacher Amy Orapello routinely takes her classes outside walking along the trails.
The trails can be used for every area of the school’s curriculum, which focuses on engineering and communications. Besides the obvious uses for science, physical education and math, Marek — an art teacher — said she could have the students draw objects they see along the trail. Students can also develop their writing skills by describing things they see.
Orapello said she would like to create a ropes course there to develop leadership skills and team-building. In the winter, she would love to take the students snowshoeing.
The trails provide hands-on learning experiences for the students.
“Instead of learning about trees from a book inside, the students can experience tree growth outside,” Marek said.
Plus, most of the students in the Greater Amsterdam School District live in the city, in apartments with small backyards.
“Most of them have never been hiking,” Orapello said. “They have never planted vegetables. They don’t even know where their food comes from.”
The push toward more hands-on learning, now outside, has come from the school’s magnet theme, Marek said.
“They push us to be more creative in the way we teach,” she said.
An extension of the trail project will be a community garden initiative. The school is looking to plant a garden near the school on raised beds.
Jamie Masterson, a fourth-grade teacher, is leading the community garden project. She said the goal is to get middle school technology students to build the raised beds and then have the students in each grade plant something.
Principal Mary Mathey said the outdoor classroom initiatives are “the future.”
“We want to expand our curriculum to outside these walls,” she said.
Two weeks ago, the school hosted a fundraiser for the trail project. The Hunt for History event brought six families to the trails for a race that included several obstacles the family had to overcome. Sponsorship for the event allowed the school to raise $1,000 for a sign at the trailhead and trail markers.
The potential for developing the trails is endless, Marek said. The school plans to develop the trails and the curriculum associated with the project as money allows.
Anyone wishing to contribute to the endeavor can make checks out to the Marie Curie PTO, Marek said. Donors of $200 or more will receive their name on the main sign, and donors of between $150 and $199 will receive their name on a plant identification sign.