Middle School News

Designing an Outdoor Classroom
Rachel Freeman, communications & website manager

Students who attend Nueva’s lower school often look back fondly on the myriad of opportunities they had to spend time outdoors. Whether it was in the forts, the garden, the ballet lawn, or the hiking trails, Nueva lower school students relish the chance to learn outside. When students get to middle school, their opportunities for outdoor learning don’t quite look the same as they did before. A new middle school elective this fall has challenged students to explore how they can take their learning outside.

When new Director of Environmental Citizenship Sarah Koning arrived she began talking to students about their experience with nature and found that middle school students really missed learning outdoors. So, she connected with Hillsborough I-Lab shop manager Christine Braun to imagine a middle school elective in which students design and build an outdoor classroom. They worked together to scout a place for the outdoor classroom, and they found one: between the library and the mansion.

The elective was open to sixth-grade students, who were excited about the opportunity to learn and to make a difference.

“I decided to take the Outdoor Classroom elective because I wanted to contribute and make a lasting change to Nueva,” sixth grader Aditya S. said.

In order to determine what the ideal outdoor classroom would look like, students began the class by talking to students, teachers, and administrators.

“Students needed to find out what people are looking for in an outdoor classroom. So they sought out to learn if an outdoor classroom was even wanted and whether people would use one if it was available to them,” Chris explained.

A big task for the group was determining the size of the outdoor classroom’s platform, as students needed to create a space large enough for a 20–25 person class—as requested by faculty during the data-collection phase. They also had to plan out the types of furniture that would be available in this classroom space (benches, desks, chairs, etc.). The class even did a lidar scan “because it was really difficult to understand the terrain since the land is on a hill, and the location where we are putting the platform is a natural dip in the hill,” Chris said.

Most other schools don’t have experiences, such as an outdoor classroom, especially not one designed by the students themselves. This aligns with Nueva’s mission because an outdoor classroom is a unique and engaging environment for learning. Being in a unique classroom will help students with their imaginations.” 
Sixth graders during their presentation to school administration

Using the lidar scan, students were able to create the topography of the hill and use this information to help them create a laser-cut model of the outdoor classroom. After iterating and reiterating, the students were able to complete its model in time for a presentation to Nueva leaders.

“They presented about why Nueva needs an outdoor classroom and how it aligns with our Mission I,” Chris said. “They also shared visual representations of the data they collected, discussed who in the community would likely use the space, and shared their recommendations for materials.”

It went so well, in fact, that Nueva administrators have approved the project to move forward and the outdoor classroom will be built and completed by the end of the school year. One of the administrators in attendance was Director of Teaching and Learning Elizabeth Rossini, who shared how this elective helps to advance Nueva’s goals for environmental stewardship.

“I was so impressed by the insight students shared in describing who we are as a school and how this outdoor classroom aligns with that,” she said. “We want students to be out in nature—inspired by it, recognizing the importance of it—and become stewards of it. Any time we can support students advocating for something they think will better their experience at Nueva and the experiences of future Nueva students, we want to do so. ”

Sixth grader Jason L. has enjoyed getting to be part of this elective. 

“A highlight of the class was seeing the finished prototype,” he said. “It almost made it worth doing all of that work. It will definitely be worth it when we get to see the actual outdoor classroom on a real scale!”

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Throughout the past year, I-Lab engineer and Hillsborough shop manager Christine Braun has been a fixture on the Hillsborough campus, using the I-Lab as her home base while teaching, leading, and planning for design thinking-related initiatives. She is also a lit club facilitator for a seventh- and eighth-grade lit club.