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June 15, 2016

Unique outdoor STEM classroom coming to Philadelphia school

New learning area could be the first of its kind, organizers said

Schools STEM
06152016_outdoor_classroom_STEM Credit/SALT Design Studio

A rendering depicts the outdoor STEM classroom coming to the Chester A. Arthur School in South Philadelphia.

For at least 50 years, the half-acre play space at Chester A. Arthur School in South Philadelphia has been a paved asphalt lot, with little more than a playground and a basketball court for children to utilize. 

But that will all change this summer, as a new $1.7 million outdoor green space dedicated to STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – instruction comes to the school thanks to the efforts of the school's friends group, the William Penn Foundation, the Philadelphia Water Department and donations from the community. 

"I think this is the first of its kind in the nation. I've done a lot of research and I haven't seen anything like this," said Luz Cardenas, a spokesman for the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that works to provide partnerships between public and private entities to benefit the school district. 

Related story: Eagles swoop in to build playground at Northeast Philly school

The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia helped facilitate the partnerships to make the project a reality, she said. 

During a ceremonial groundbreaking on Wednesday at the K-8 school at 2000 Catherine St. on Wednesday, students gathered on the lot in 80-degree heat.  

But it felt much hotter. 

In fact, according to Mike Burlando, co-chair of the Friends of Chester Arthur School Education Foundation, in doing studies while planning for the new STEM school yard, they found that on particularly hot days, the asphalt playspace can feel like 140 degrees. 

"But, soon, this space is going to be so much cooler in so many ways," he said. 

Credit/SALT Design Studio

This rendering, by SALT Design Studio, the landscape design company developing the project, shows the proposed layout for the new STEM school yard. It is set to be complete by the end of the year.

Plans for the new STEM school yard call for two outdoor classrooms, a rain and pump garden, a climbing and physics instruction area, raised garden beds, a 50-meter track and sundial, a parking lot surrounded by trees and "sense walls" intended to help the learning experience for children with disabilities. 

These features will be broken up into four "labs" – a "habitat lab" geared toward learning about plant and animal life, a "systems lab" focused on hydrology, ecology and stormwater management, a "motion lab" intended to teach proportions, mathematics, human movement and celestial bodies; and an "energy lab" to educate about food and waste, with areas for seat spouting, soil building and composing from school waste streams. 

"I plan to use this new facility, and the playground, to enhance my learning to the fullest." – Nafisa Jackson, 12, 6th grader, Chester A. Arthur School 

Students will receive instruction via a full curriculum developed by the College of New Jersey's Center for Excellence in STEM Education. The landscape architecture company, SALT Design Studio, of Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County, developed the design for the outdoor classroom. 

"This is going to be genuine outdoor learning," said Kimberly Newman, principal of Chester A. Arthur School. "We are building this in the middle of the city and that's really unique." 

Construction of the STEM school yard is funded by a $1.1 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, along with $232,000 from the PWD's Stormwater Management Incentive Program and an additional $110,000 from City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson (D-2nd District) through a grant from the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

The remaining fund were obtained through community fundraising, said Newman. 

Hayden Mitman /PhillyVoice

Nafisa Jackson, a 6th grader at Chester A. Arthur School in South Philly speaks about her hopes for the new STEM school yard during a ceremony held on Wednesday.

Students at the school, on Wednesday, said they were excited about the new learning opportunities that this STEM school yard will bring to the Arthur school. 

"I plan to use this new facility, and the playground, to enhance my learning to the fullest," said Nafisa Jackson, 12, a 6th grader at the school. As her favorite subject is science, she's looking forward to utilizing the new facilities for projects and science experiments. 

"I like experiments," she said. "And I like that there will be outdoor classrooms." 

Marcquaan Marion, 14, a 7th grader at the school, said the new outdoor classrooms will help students turn their textbook lessons into hands-on learning experiences. 

"This will give kids the ability to learn more," he said. "Right now, kids sit in class and just read. Now, we will have an outdoor classroom where we can learn and play." 

While Wednesday's groundbreaking was ceremonial, Newman said construction will begin June 27, with completion by the end of the year. 

In fact, Newman said, about 80 percent of the construction project is expected to be complete when the school children come back to class in the fall after summer break. 

"I'm just really looking forward to seeing the kids' faces on their first day back," said the principal. "They are just going to light up."