STEM Curriculum Paired with Creativity Boosts Outdoor Education Knowledge
Key Takeaways: Flagstaff Academy encourages creativity and a strong foundation in science and technology through a Core Knowledge curriculum that includes outdoor education.
When given the option, most kids don’t immediately run to the salad bar for lunch. But on “Harvest Days” at Flagstaff Academy in Longmont, Colorado, it’s a different story.
“One of the primary focuses for School Wellness and Nutrition Services has been to increase students’ consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables,” says Sarah Harter, School Wellness Coordinator of the St. Vrain Valley School District. “While we offer fresh daily salad bars in the cafeteria, Harvest Day has helped us engage students one step further and get them more open and willing to eat the vegetables we offer. We are currently in our third year with Harvest Days at Flagstaff Academy and it has been amazing to watch students become more adventurous, see their excitement when they hear it’s Harvest Day, and how well the school has tied in Farm to School into other content areas.”
“One of my favorite aspects of Harvest Day is when a parent reaches out to me,” says Jodie Lindsay Popma, Flagstaff Academy PTO Vice President and Wellness Committee chair. “I had a parent send me a picture of their children playing Harvest Day in their backyard! During our first Harvest Day this year, we opened the salad bar free to all students, specifically aimed to teach younger children how to use the bar, and it was such a success we used up all vegetables (including back stock) by 4th period!”
A central part of Flagstaff Academy’s curriculum takes place inside the geodesic dome, otherwise known as the “Greenhouse” classroom. The classroom has two gardens, including an indoor aquaponics fed one, and outdoor vegetable and pollinator gardens. “The stated purpose of our Geo-Dome greenhouse is to teach students where food comes from,” says Allison Cole, Greenhouse Manager and teacher. “More than this, however, greenhouse time is part of students’ overall science grade. In addition to doing seasonal garden activities, students are exposed to science concepts in the outdoor setting. We do some harvesting and tasting, and we are always supporting the idea of healthy choices.”
“Any given day the students are engaged in planting seeds to harvesting to studying the fish in the koi pond inside the greenhouse,” said Lisa Trank-Greene, Flagstaff Academy’s Communication Coordinator. “It’s a vibrant part of our curriculum.”
Flagstaff Academy is based on the Core Knowledge curriculum that was developed by E.D. Hirsch. This model has been implemented by dozens of charter schools in Colorado. Many of these charter schools use the Core Knowledge as a base that helps them focus their academic expectations and design a successful school. They then build off that base to do much more. These schools, like Flagstaff Academy, add the characteristics and priorities that make their school unique and special.
That curriculum extends far beyond the dome walls of the geodesic greenhouse, which is led by a full-time greenhouse teacher. In the fall, the entire middle school heads to Colorado State University’s Mountain Campus at Pingree Park for a three-day trip that’s become one of the highlights of the middle school experience. Students take part in rope courses, hiking, climbing, and outdoor education.
Flagstaff Academy’s team puts a strong emphasis on heightening the middle school experience with each of its 295 middle schoolers, which it believes makes them more successful in high school and beyond.
“We participate in this awesome program because of the many benefits that go far beyond education,” says Kevin Pugh, Dean of School Culture at Flagstaff Academy. “The trip helps to develop personal and social skills, a sense of environmental stewardship, cooperation and conflict resolution skills, as well as improve performance in science scores.”
The outdoor learning experience ties directly with Flagstaff Academy’s mission to develop students who are equipped to be “well-rounded, ethical leaders” with a foundation based on science and technology. Students learn the principles of field ecology, stream ecology, and astronomy, weaving technology devices like GPS and computers into what they learn in the field.
“Our technology, STEM, Science, Greenhouse, and Library Media Specialist teachers work closely together to look at the standards and curriculum at each grade level and craft thoughtful interdisciplinary lessons where students often receive instruction that begins in one area and then is extended in another to create a complete integrated cycle of learning,” says Sharon Aguina, Flagstaff Academy’s Executive Principal. “Each Specialist is committed to providing hands-on engaged, problem-based 21st Century experiences for students and also embeds reading, writing, and math into student lessons and products. Student achievement and success is enhanced because students are able to have authentic real-life experiences that parallel a field-based learning environment.”
Students also participate in computer programming classes beginning in kindergarten. When they reach middle school, students are empowered to teach the younger grades computer programming, with peer teaching and mentoring a focus of the experience. They also participate in the Hour of Code(link is external), which is a global movement aimed at teaching people of all ages a one-hour introduction to computer science through coding activities.
The arts are also infused in Flagstaff Academy’s curriculum, with programs like visual arts, theater and drama, and band and choir. Flagstaff Academy has hosted guests like dancers and musicians through grant programs, where students learned about the laws of motion through dance and the technical aspects of music. Actors from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival have visited to talk with students about social issues in connection with the subject matter.
These experiences, coupled with a rigorous academic experience, are preparing students not just for academic success in high school and college, but for life beyond.
“The anecdotal information we get from principals, assistant principals, and counselors consistently is that Flagstaff Academy students are leaders,” said Trank-Greene. “They’re great local and global citizens.”
To learn more about Flagstaff Academy, visit their website here.
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