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"Acquiring funding for a small number of students can be difficult, but North Clarion fortunately found enough to help them develop the outdoor classroom concept."

Hands-on Teaching Approach Contributes to PSSA Test Success

Hands-on activities are prominent in the North Clarion County School District’s science department. With graduating classes of only about 50 students, the small district has four science teachers who constantly seek creative ways to add inquiry-based activities into lessons. Based on a ten year-old nature trail, a transition to learning in the outdoors has already been established. Steven Young, superintendant of the district and the high school principal, believes the Farm to School project opens another door to an outside classroom. A Farm to School mini-grant from Project PA provided the funds for an apple orchard which has been planted adjacent to the school, and it is hoped that the school will benefit from the orchard over the coming 15-20 years.

Although the orchard has only recently been planted, the students have continuously been involved in the process. When choosing the trees and the best location, students looked at soil type, climate zone, amount of available light, and other variables, finally deciding on five varieties of apples. Next, the students were sent outside to physically map where each of the ten trees would be planted.

Currently the students are watering the trees and waiting for them to mature. Mr. Young explains how the number of activities presented will increase as the orchard develops over time. Each teacher is planning to incorporate hands-on experiments and observations for students. “As it matures we’ll be able to eventually harvest the apples. The students can apply what they’ve learned conceptually. It’s not all theory; it’s hands-on.”

The district’s science curriculum focuses mainly on activities that develop basic processing skills. Looking at variables, making predictions, and conducting studies outside allow the students to get their hands dirty. Last year this small district’s science scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests were among the top ten in the state. Young credits the hands-on approach for much of this success. He plans for students in the coming years to learn techniques for pruning and for observing microorganisms attacking the trees. He considers the orchard a new approach to apply classroom learning to the real-life situation of growing healthy plants in the school’s own backyard.

Acquiring funding for a small number of students can be difficult, but North Clarion fortunately found enough to help them develop the outdoor classroom concept. Mr. Young hopes to expand further, possibly adding other varieties of fruit trees such as pears or peaches, or maybe they will build a small greenhouse. Until then, the teachers and students are preparing for the apple orchard to mature so they can fully utilize the learning possibilities it offers. 

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