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Fort Cherry Students Explore 'Messy Science' In New Outdoor Classroom

For teacher Keara Welsh, the best way to experience science is through hands-on discovery, but it can often be challenging.

“In my space indoors, I don’t have any sinks. I have carpets,” said Welsh, a STEAM instructor at Fort Cherry School District in McDonald, Pa.

She said trying to keep classrooms clean can be difficult, which is why she loves working in the new Fort Cherry Discovery Zone, an outdoor classroom featuring two gardens and a solar-powered weather station.

“So, this is a great area for me to explore the messy part of science,” Welsh said. 

Credit Alexander Popichak / 90.5 WESA

The Discovery Zone officially opened Tuesday at a gathering of district administration, teachers, students and community members.

District officials wanted to take advantage of some unused space, said Fort Cherry director of curriculum instruction Trisha Craig.

“We had a space we didn’t know what to do with and we were looking closely at the different spaces on campus to try to reinvigorate them and recreate them so they are better learning spaces for our students,” Craig said.

While the Discovery Zone is attached to the elementary school, it’s open to students and staff district-wide. Students in 5th and 12th grade agricultural classes planted vertical and shade gardens.

Craig said creating the multipurpose classroom was a collaborative effort involving students, educators, administrators and generous grant donors.

“Teachers bring the students out, our custodians use it, our secretaries use it,” Craig said. “It’s an open space for people to come out and relax and to learn.”The weather station and outlets in the space are powered by two solar panels installed by Pittsburgh-based AYA Instruments.

Credit Alexander Popichak / 90.5 WESA
Carl Lotz, Manager of Product Development and Sales for AYA Instruments, explains the battery apparatus that holds power generated by two solar panels at the Fort Cherry Discovery Zone Tuesday.

“The school has the capability to look at their own weather station, which is close to a professional grade weather station, for any data they would like,” said Carl Lotz, manager of product development and sales for AYA Instruments. “They can also access weather data from other stations from around the world and around the country.”

In addition to measuring weather data, the station monitors the amount of power generated by the solar panels. Craig said students have already studied data in their classes.

“There’s a website that manages all of that data,” Craig said. “So, whether it’s an AP physics class or it’s a 4th grade science class, they can go on and use it. Our AP physics 2 class actually did some study of the solar panels earlier this year and were monitoring usage data."

Welsh said the space offers room for growth, and the district is developing projects for next year’s classes to further utilize the discovery zone. For example, next year, students in 4th through 6th grades will create solar ovens which will direct the warmth of the sun to melt crayons.

“The outdoor space is a great new way to implement ‘messy science’ projects,” Welsh said. “In the spring, I’ve been trying to bring students out here for a couple different projects where it allows us to have the freedom to be messy, not worry about clean up so much … it’s a great escape for students.”