Old friends, new neighbors, huge opportunity
For years, the Mettawee Community School (MCS) took advantage of its proximity to the magical Merck Forest & Farmland Center (MFFC). A few days each fall, students in grades 4-6 made the 20-minute pilgrimage by bus to Merck’s 3,200-acre campus for outdoor science classes taught by the inspiring MFFC staff.
The potential to expand the Merck/Mettawee learning partnership took another step forward over the last year when MFFC purchased 140 acres adjacent to the school using funds raised jointly with the Vermont Land Trust.
In addition to conserving the natural environment, the management plan calls for experimenting with on-site, hands-on authentic learning. Now nature’s classroom is located just a stone’s throw from the school building.
“This tract of land includes four separate natural habitats, grasslands, shrublands, wetlands, and a forest filled with a mix of hard and softwoods,” said Rob Terry, MFFC executive director. “Each offers different learning opportunities for students to explore. We’re just scratching the surface on ways to use this land as a living teaching tool.”
At the start of this school year and in the midst of a pandemic, the Vermont Agency of Education encouraged schools to move classes outdoors. At Mettawee, that was no problem at all.
“We always knew Merck’s management of the land next to the school opened the possibility for new learning,” said Brooke DeBonis, MCS principal. “We started brainstorming with Merck last year, but Covid-19 gave us a huge incentive to immediately make the Merck land our new outdoor classroom.”
Second grade teacher, Ross Harmon, used the land this fall to host a science project on monitoring bird migration. Over a few weeks, students walked through the woods with binoculars, watching for birds, listening for distinct sounds and recording their findings in individual science journals.
Teachers also used the sanctuary of the space next door to encourage students to individually explore nature and write short stories describing the experience. Budding artists now have a new canvas for their creative work.
The expansive grasslands gave physical education instructor, Janna Webb, all the room she needed to keep her charges in shape. “We moved out of the gym and into the fields daily to conduct muscular and cardiovascular exercises, including stretches, jogs and hikes,” said Webb. “The kids love this land and make no excuses or complaints about outdoor P.E. They can’t wait to go outside.”
Webb plans to hold her PE classes which may include hiking, snowshoeing and sledding, in the fields throughout the winter. “We’ve told the students to layer and dress warm,” she said. “We want them outside as much as possible.”
The school’s old friends at Merck will lend a helping hand moving forward. Members of the MFFC staff conduct Mettawee faculty training in the living sciences and help design ongoing activities for the neighboring land that can fit into the school’s basic curriculum. Other possibilities include offering environmental learning classes for parents and family.
Plans are also under consideration to create marked hiking trails that can be used by the entire Rupert and Pawlet community.
Once the pandemic is under control, Mettawee students will continue their annual visits to MFFC to explore the farm, including the traditional overnight camp for 6th graders.
“We live in Vermont with great access to nature,” said Merck’s Terry. “It only makes sense that we take full advantage of that resource as we educate our children. The purchase of the new campus next to Mettawee will expand our collaboration with the school, not replace the rich tradition of outdoor learning already in place.”