Columbia nature school to open its doors in 2015


Photo by Mikaela Acton

Urmilla Kuttikad

I couldn't believe the contrast between the greens and the reds and browns, it was as if Summer and Autumn were fighting for the best nature display.
photo by Mikaela Acton

If all goes well, the Columbia Public Schools district hopes to open a nature school in August 2015 at Rock Bridge State Park. The school will be able to service 100 5th graders per year

Stiepleman, along with school board member Jan Mees and CPS science coordinator Mike Szydlowski, had all been musing over the idea from separate sources of inspiration. Stiepleman gave a Tedx Talk back in 2012 regarding the idea of small, autonomous schools including nature schools. Mees visited the Wonders of Wildlife (WOLF) School in Springfield, Mo. and was struck by the thought of bringing the same concept to Columbia. Szydlowski takes secondary school kids to the Grand Tetons for a summer program and was also intrigued by the idea of making the concept local.
“The Grand Teton trip has soared in popularity with 303 students going this year,” Szydlowski said. “This is up from 79 our first year and 202 the second year.  We are now the largest school group in the country to visit the Teton Science School. This showed us that there is a high demand for science and environmental learning in the community.”
Once the three decided that they wanted to make this seed of an idea come to fruition, they got into contact with both Missouri’s park system and its Department of Natural Resources.
“Mike and I asked Bill Bryan, the director of the Missouri Parks, if we could put 4 trailers in Rock Bridge State Park. He hated the idea of trailers in the park, but proposed we do something together,” Stiepleman said. “We love the idea and began working with his team and Sara Pauley, the head of Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources. We began meeting every other week planning both the design of the facility and the guiding principles for the school.”
These guiding principles follow the themes of enrollment, curriculum, partnership and staff. They include the goals that students from all backgrounds will be encouraged to attend and that students will learn using a system called Place Based Education, meaning that much of what they learn is connected to their community around them. Much of the more specific details of the workings of the school are still being fleshed out, but some structures have already been settled.
“Classes will be set up in such a way that allows for individual and group learning and collaboration,” Szydlowski said. “The school will have four classrooms and the walls in between each set of two will be able to open up to create a larger learning environment. The school will also contain a large wet lab where students can conduct research and analysis labs. Just a few steps outside the school the state park trail system begins where much of our research takes place. Finally, a very short walk from the school there is pavilion that will be used as an outdoor gathering and learning area.”
The nature school will be a step out of the box for Columbia, and Stiepleman said that this sort of innovation will be a crucial value of his administration. However, he believes innovation must come with focus and vision, and he won’t pursue innovation if it doesn’t also herald enrichment, achievement or opportunity with it. He is expecting all of these things from the nature school and hopes that the WOLF school’s incredible results suggest that his expectations for Columbia may become tangible reality.
“When we went to see the WOLF school in Springfield, we were struck by the successes their children were having,” Stiepleman said. “On standardized tests — and by the way, the kids selected were not necessarily high achieving kids — the children outperformed their peers. On qualitative measures, the children self described themselves as more capable, more willing to take chances, more confident, and better prepared for middle school. From the point of view of the Department of Natural Resources, they have a goal of engaging future generations. How powerful it will be to have 100 5th graders every year caring about state parks and the natural environment.”
RBHS Honors Biology teacher April Sulze is a happy advocate of these sorts of schools. She is particularly excited not only about how the community’s children will grow through this program, but about how the community itself will grow through this progressive mindset and willingness to cultivate the importance of science.
“Anytime we have unique and innovative opportunities for kids, it really does look good upon CPS, and especially with the push for STEM — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — it really helps if we’re starting kids off younger, getting them interested in science and actually doing science.” Sulze said. “Not sitting in a classroom and learning about science, but getting out and getting dirty, doing labs and all that stuff. I think it’s just great. I think that Columbia is very lucky to have the support not only from the community but from the government agencies that are helping to fund this. We’re in a very unique situation having a state park in the middle of our city — why not do something like this?”
By Urmila Kutikkad