River District takes learning into the outdoors

by Tori Hamby

Students at Whitewater Middle School prepare the soil for their community garden. (Courtesy of Edna Chirico)

Forget spending biology class in a stuffy classroom laboratory. Mountain Island-area schools are taking learning outdoors with some help from the Catawba River District.

This summer the Catawba River District, a nonprofit organization that strives to encourage sustainable environmental practices along the Catawba River, has opened its first middle school outdoor learning lab at Whitewater Middle School, 1520 Belmeade Drive, in Charlotte.

A dozen science labs are planned for the area and grants have been filed to finance their construction. Middle school students will use the outdoor garden to learn about nutrition, plant life and soil composition up-close, Edna Chirico, Catawba River District executive director, said.

“Many students in the River District’s more urban schools live in neighborhoods where it might be difficult or unsafe to spend a lot of time outdoors,” Chirico said.

Whitewater Academy plans to expand the garden – once completed – into Whitewater Farms, which it will share with elementary school neighbor Whitewater Academy.

David Fogarty, Gaston County Extension director, said the Catawba River District and county cooperative extension have been working to share ideas for the project. The county extension runs a program, “Harvesting Healthy Youth,” at nine Gaston County elementary schools, including Mount Holly’s Ida Rankin Elementary. Third-graders spend nine weeks gardening and six weeks learning about nutrition.

Other outdoor learning labs and projects the Catawba River District plans to open in the coming months include other garden labs at Mountain Island Elementary, Ida Rankin Elementary, Catawba Heights Elementary and River Oaks Academy; a wetlands lab at River Oaks Academy; a renewable energy lab at Mountain Island Elementary; a working farm at Reventure Park, Charlotte’s first eco-industrial park; labs along the Carolina Thread Trail; and a professional development training center for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) educators.

The timing of these projects depend on if or when the Catawba River District receives grant money from the National Science Foundation, as well as the support from corporate sponsors. The sustainable farm at ReVenture Park alone will cost about $1.2 million and each learning lab will probably cost about $10,000 to $20,000 each, Chirico said.

All learning labs will be open to the public – even those housed at public schools.

Several schools, particularly Mountain Island Elementary – an official Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools STEM Focus School – have recognized the importance science and math skills will play in the future job market.

“Schools recognize that every student will eventually have to understand and develop STEM skills to get a job,” Chirico said.

Want to help?

The Catawba River District and Whitewater Middle School need community volunteers to tend to the learning gardens while school is closed for the summer. The school will hold community meetings June 14 from 6 to 7:30 p.m., as well as July 12 and Aug. 9, for those interested in helping out with the project.

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