This month, Austin ISD students and teachers literally got their hands dirty when they celebrated the opening of Discovery Hill: Bugs Brains and Blooms, the district’s first demonstration schoolyard habitat.
The new outdoor habitat, adjacent to Pleasant Hill Elementary School, features a solar classroom and plants and materials native to Central Texas. The site will be used as an AISD field trip destination to help connect students with nature.
“Schoolyards are the perfect locations to install accessible vegetable gardens, loop trails, wildlife habitats, nature-based play areas, nature preserves, and more,” said Anne Muller, the district’s outdoor learning specialist. “There are a lot of ways that children learn and play outside and the schoolyard can be seen as an extension of the indoor classroom.”
Discovery Hill was made possible by a partnership between AISD and the National Wildlife Federation. Grant funding from the Toyota USA foundation as well as HEB, 3M, Frost Bank, The Native Plant Society of Texas and Westcave preserve helped AISD and NWF install this demonstration habitat as well as habitats at 22 other elementary and middle schools across the district. The goal of this and other outdoor classrooms is to help improve students’ ability to succeed academically, especially in the areas of math and science.
AISD and NWF believe a students' ability to achieve in science and math is greatly enhanced when educators use the natural environment as a context for learning, particularly in an outdoor setting. This is especially important in urban school districts like AISD that aim to improve students’ academic performance while developing the whole child. This new demonstration site offers students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in a living laboratory, which both introduces children to the natural world, and increases student performance.
The new demonstration site will also be a place where teachers from across the district can gain training on how to implement outdoor curriculum on their home campus. On June 25, AISD will offer professional development for science teachers that will focus specifically on sustainable school grounds.
Discovery Hill is not the only example of AISD partnering with outside entities to improve the outdoor spaces on its campuses. A recent grant from the Austin Pond Society is also helping to enhance students’ understanding of the environment. This year, the Austin Pond Society awarded $500 grants to Garcia Middle School as well as Perez, Ridgetop and William elementary schools to install ponds on their campuses which will help students learn about water gardening, the water cycle, caring for aquatic life and more.
For AISD students, science labs will soon be a place not only for test tubes but also for tortoises, for Bunsen burners and for butterflies, for graduated cylinders and for gardens.