Smyrna Elementary, recently named as Rutherford County School’s first STEM school, has begun construction of an outdoor classroom and amphitheater via a partnership with Dow Smith Co.
“We needed community partners, reached out to Dow Smith, and they came to the table to talk with us,” said Vanessa Ritter, principal of Smyrna Elementary. “We were asking them to join us instructionally in working through classroom projects. But they asked if we could dream big, what would we dream for our school. I said, ‘I would want an outdoor classroom. An amphitheater.’”
The proposed site is a large stage with classroom seating on one side, brick walls and an awning to cover the stage. As an outdoor classroom, the hope is that student imagination will be sparked — and even normal lessons will become engrained through sensory memory.
Staff at Smyrna Elementary also hope the new space will manage crowds during schoolwide and community events by providing more seating and open space.
“We do outside celebrations with our whole school — 700 students and staff. Every three weeks we celebrate academic achievements and class achievements. When our clubs perform you can’t even move around our gym,” said Ritter.
Teachers are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new outdoor space. Melonie Denton is a fourth-grade math and science teacher who is already thinking of how the outdoor space will change her students’ experience.
“My vision for this is that we will have class outside,” said Denton. “Getting the kids out of the building and into something like this will be a new sensory experience where they can generate new ideas and apply that to their learning.”
Meredith Murdoch, a first-grade teacher, is excited about getting kids to showcase their work on the new stage.
“Teaching them not only to stand and speak and present but getting up on a stage and platform and being able to practice speaking and presenting something they’ve made, I think will really take them to the next level,” said Murdoch.
Smyrna Elementary, having recently achieved STEM-designation by the state, remains focused on getting kids outside and having them ask a lot of questions. Seeing STEM in action will be as much of an experience for students as actually having the outdoor classroom completed and ready to use.
“I think our big a-ha moment with Dow Smith is during each phase of construction we’re going to have the kids come out,” said Lichelle Leonard, instructional STEM coach at Smyrna Elementary. “It will be roped off for safety, but they’ll be able to come out, walk around, talk to the workers about what is going on so they can see the entire engineering design process throughout.”
Even though it will be some time before the classroom is completed (the stage will be completed this year), students at Smyrna Elementary are still finding ways to explore and grow through their sense of curiosity — and this curiosity is being nurtured by all the teachers at Smyrna Elementary.
“The beauty of this is taking STEM outdoors,” Leonard said. “Right now, you’ve got students who don’t know how to go outside and just enjoy nature. Just look around and see what’s happening. Take the walk around the school. Take a nature walk and come back and let’s talk about what we noticed and what we wondered about.”