The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Sunday Profile

July 7, 2013

Class gone wild

BECKLEY — The Wild Classroom idea started with a space at Shady Spring Elementary that was not the most attractive on campus.

“This unused space, I felt, had a lot of potential, but I knew it would be a huge undertaking and I had no idea where to start,” explained Susan Vandall, Shady Spring Elementary fifth-grade science teacher.

“Several years ago as a science teacher I wanted to find engaging ways to teach my students science. I found the Ecogeeks!, creators of cool science videos to inspire students to love science.”

She added, “Their motto is ‘Never stop exploring your world.’ So that’s what I thought would be a great motto for my classroom.”

Vandall noted that a student who can experience science in a real life setting will retain the information 90 percent better than just reading about the subject in a book.

“With this information in mind I thought, well, there’s this space that has cattails and seems to be kind of marshy; maybe we will just put seats to overlook the

cattails to observe the birds and other wildlife.”

Then with some ideas and encouragement from her principal, Penny Carrico, and Phyllis Farley, then the executive director of Piney Creek Watershed Association, and Rob Pate, soil scientist from the Department of Agriculture, Vandall began to think on a much larger scale.

“The next thing I knew, one contact led to another and I was writing a grant to fund the big idea,” Vandall said. “I thought about it, but could never imagine receiving money for an idea such as this.”

She wrote a grant with an added touch, a one-minute video her son Jacob Quesenberry created with the students featured as actors explaining why they needed this outdoor space.

“To my surprise, the one-minute video wonder was a success and I received a grant from Beckley Area Foundation that would help fund the bulk of the project,” the science teacher said.

The Southern Conservation District and Shady Spring Garden Club also helped with monetary donations. The USDA in Alderson donated seeds and wildlife posters to the project. Other organizations have been generous, too: 84 Lumber, Lowe’s, Discount Tile, Green River Nursery and Redden’s Greenhouse donated products and discounts to help make the program come to life, Vandall said.

She added that the area was not in any shape for an outdoor classroom, so they had to enlist more people from the area to help. Bud Jarrell donated his time and backhoe services to shape up the space and Shady Spring Stone donated the extra dirt needed for fill-in areas.

“The students of the fifth grade moved mountains of dirt to gain some kind of structure,” Vandall said.

AmeriCorps also sent some great students to develop the path which would be the backdrop to the whole project, Vandall said.

Boy Scout Troop 1055, with their leader Rob Young, built a split rail fence around the area to protect the trees and plants.

The Department of Agriculture sent engineers Don Dodd and Leslie Sears to survey the area with the help of the students to develop a plan to back up the water in the swampy area so the site could feature a water ecosystem where students could observe a multitude of wildlife, Vandall said.

Steve Pachuta donated several bird houses, butterfly houses and a bat house.

“This year we have engaged in numerous activities in our outdoor space,” Vandall said. “John Moneypenny taught us how to use our weather station equipment and we have studied the food chain, nitrogen cycle and snakes. Jim Fregonara with the DNR came and taught the students all about snakes.

“The wildlife classroom has done much more than give us a space to have our class outside; it has also developed a sense of teamwork and pride among our past and present students. The excitement of the children when I say we are working outside today makes it all worthwhile.”

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