Evanston Township High School takes science outdoors on their arboretum accredited campus


Photo courtesy of Scott Meier

Evanston Township High School students spend class time collecting data near one of the ponds in the high school’s outdoor classroom. ETHS is one of the only schools in the nation with an arboretum on campus.

Zella Milfred, Reporter

In past winters, Scott Meier cut holes through a frozen pond to show his students the phytoplankton and zooplankton living under the ice. 

Meier, an Evanston Township High School biology teacher, said the exercise at the ETHS Nature Center showed students parts of the ecosystem they didn’t previously expect. 

“The water is actually still alive,” Meier said. “It’s not frozen solid, things aren’t dead. It is giving them a peek into something that they normally wouldn’t see.”

Meier said he can no longer perform this specific classroom activity because rising temperatures have thinned the ice in recent years. But he still uses the Nature Center, commonly known as the outdoor classroom, to immerse students into the surrounding natural environment.

Not only does ETHS have an outdoor classroom, but the school’s 65-acre campus is also recognized as a Level 1 Accredited Arboretum by ArbNet, an international program that sets standards for arboreta, which are tree-focused gardens. The arboretum, which covers the entire campus, features 70 species of trees and woody shrubs. ETHS brings students outside during class to engage with their environment.

The Garden Club of Evanston partnered with the high school in 2008 to plant, categorize and label the trees on campus, as well as create an arboretum guidebook to serve as an education resource for students. The project was finalized in 2015, making ETHS one of only a few high schools in the country to hold this type of arboretum status.

Kathy Hardgrove, a GCE member who helped lead the effort to catalog ETHS’ woody plants, said she hopes the labeled trees encourage students to take pride in their campus and to learn about parts of nature that are often taken for granted.

“You would hope that the more knowledge you have about something, the more interested you are going to be in it,” said Hardgrove, who currently has five grandchildren attending ETHS. 

ETHS curriculum is designed to bring students outside using the outdoor classroom, which is home to habitats including a prairie, wetland, ponds and native forest.

Scott Meier, who co-manages the outdoor classroom, said the space was originally a dumping ground for concrete and blacktop until a group of environmental science students and their teacher transformed it into a restoration area and educational space about two decades ago.

“We’re committed to trying to maintain an ecological space as close to its natural integrity as possible,” Meier said. 

The outdoor classroom has allowed science students to get hands-on experience by performing population studies and collecting data on the environment’s soil, water and organisms.

Meier said the space is also used by art classes for flower pressing projects, by gym classes for yoga and by forensics classes to study the decomposition process of organisms. A variety of rocks in a small gravel moraine are available to geology students.

ETHS science teacher and outdoor classroom co-manager Ellen Fierer said the hands-on experience helps instill an appreciation for sustainability in students, especially amid the looming threats of climate change. 

“They’re not going to want to understand it unless they’re in it and gaining some sort of appreciation for those outside spaces,” Fierer said. “If we don’t give them that exposure, they’re not going to see what they’re missing.”

Fierer said she hopes these experiences show students of all backgrounds they can be environmental stewards and active members of the sustainability movement, especially because white voices often dominate mainstream environmental movements.

Meier said he and Fierer have devoted this school year to preparing the space for springtime instruction, which included a prescribed burn of the prairie last fall.

“Our spring should look pretty spectacular for having our kids coming out there and seeing the plants coming back to life,” Meier said.

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Twitter: @ZMilfred

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