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JOHNSTON, Iowa — Johnston High School is celebrating a new way to learn. After more than five years of planning and construction, their outdoor learning environment is complete and ready to inspire the next generation. 

Sara Kate Howe and Kyla Burns are science teachers at Johnston High School and the brains behind transitioning a normal retention pond into a learning environment for students at the high school.

“The pond has been stocked by the DNR to have bass in it and bluegill. We have done a prairie restoration that’s all around back here. So we have kind of taken what was there, mowed it down, and reseeded. And then we have our picnic shelter structure with the outdoor classroom space,” said AP Environmental Science Teacher, Kyla Burns. 

Waders and nets are stored in a storage container that was donated and then painted by Katie Black and her art students at Johnston High School. Students use the waiters and nets to collect materials straight from the water. They take what they collected to the outdoor classroom (which was also constructed by students at Johnston High School) to conduct tests right outside the pond they were just in.

Gabi Michalski is a senior at Johnston and said, “We were using the phosphate acid reagent and like putting it in to find out the phosphate levels because right now the phosphate levels are really high in the pond and we want them to not be that high.”

Gathering the materials in person gives the students an extra step, but it’s a richer experience that provides a deeper understanding of the material. Michalski explained, “It’s a lot better than just like reading on a textbook or watching like a video and like seeing how these things work because when we actually get to like have the hands-on experience and actually like go out and see and kind of do it ourselves and it’s a lot better I think it’s a lot easier to learn.”

Burns also hopes that getting her students into nature while at school will make them appreciate the land and water more when they’re not at school. ”That’s really what we need for our society for our community is individuals that respect and value what they have and want to take care of it,” said Burns.

The students are also getting to experience some of the careers the environmental science field has to offer. Burns says that specifically, they get to experience careers in the Department of Natural Resources, wildlife management, and water quality, but she also teaches her students that environmental learning is integrated into any career. “Because even if you’re going into business, you can look at how you can be an environmentally friendly business owner, if you’re going to go into law, maybe you want to look at environmental law.”

The outdoor learning space is also used by botany classes for plant identification and prairie restoration. There are plans to partner with Iowa State University to raise and release monarchs and eventually they hope to create a path to the prairie grasses that will display art and poems from art and language art students.