Facilities (Campus Spaces)

Outdoor School

outdoor learning spaces: field of high grass


Outdoor spaces are a valuable campus asset, adding curb appeal and so much more. Studies show that spending time outside decreases stress, increases concentration and boosts overall health. Some campus outdoor spaces work as actual living classrooms, supporting curriculum and enhancing education; all benefit the surrounding community. In this article, College Planning & Management takes a tour to four diverse outdoor spaces around the country.

The Farm at Suburb’s Edge

Portland Community College (PCC), Rock Creek Campus, Portland, OR

outdoor learning spaces: cattle


Tucked in the corner of suburban Washington County live 30 sheep, 24 head of beef cattle, a clutch of chickens, a goat named — wait for it — George Thorogoat, and more. These animals are part of PCC Rock Creek’s Farm, a living laboratory that supports the school’s two-year Veterinary Technology program.

“Not every vet tech program has a farm,” boasts Dr. Brad Krohn, SAC chair of the vet tech program. Not to be confused with a hobby farm or petting zoo, these animals give students hands-on experience as they learn how to examine and treat livestock. The program is held to the high standards of the USDA Animal Welfare Act, which requires meticulous record keeping. “Reporting to the USDA is one of my biggest time consumers,” says Krohn.

outdoor learning spaces: sheep in barn


OPEN UP AND SAY “BAA.” As part of the Veterinary Technology program on the Rock Creek Campus farm at Oregon’s Portland Community College there are almost 30 sheep, two dozen cows, five alpacas, three rabbits, a horse, a donkey, some chickens, and a group of dogs and cats at a next-door kennel. The vet tech program rescues groups of dogs and cats from local shelters for students to provide daily care, exercise and assist with medical procedures to keep them healthy. Students also clean the on-site kennel, organize animal feedings and participate in farm activities. In addition to their program work, students fund raise and lend their expertise to local nonprofits.

The farm has its own funding stream separate from the vet tech program and a full-time coordinator on campus to provide 24-hour support. “You can’t turn your back on a farm,” Krohn explains.

While neighbors in the surrounding subdivisions can often be seen waving from the fence, they’re not invited to interact with the livestock. “It’s a biosecurity issue,” says Krohn. There are community outreach tours to promote science education and careers to underserved populations, however. The rest of the school is also encouraged to use the farmland. There are solar panels on grazing sites and a collaboration with the cafeteria for composting.

Along with the farm, PCC Rock Creek has a 3.6-acre Learning Garden with raised beds and row cropping. Food harvested from the garden is sold at a weekly farmer’s market, given to the cafeteria or donated to the Women’s Resource Center Canteen, a food-assistance program for students.

The Rare Prairie

Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC), Calmar Campus, Calmar, IA

Think of Iowa and you think of corn. It makes sense. “Only one tenth of 1 percent of Iowa prairie remains in the state,” says Ronald Lindblom, Outdoor Learning Lab manager, NICC. “We have the most disturbed landscape in America, maybe the world.”

That disturbance comes at a cost. The lack of native plants brings severe flooding, soil loss, polluted water and rivers that run at 85 percent capacity during rainstorms. “Normal is 50 percent,” Lindblom explains. And then there’s the disconnect between Iowans and their state’s cultural heritage. “There are people who’ve lived in Iowa their whole lives and never seen a prairie,” Lindblom says.

Northeast Iowa Community College combats this with their 42-acre Outdoor Learning Lab. Three-and-a-half miles of open-to-the-public trail wind through native forest, prairie, wetland and a forest/prairie mixture called savannah. The land is used by students from NICC and other local colleges for experiments in restoration, conservation and sustainability and enjoyed by everyone else. “I love seeing students resting or walking the trails,” Lindblom admits.

outdoor learning spaces: children in field


GETTING BUGGY. The Outdoor Learning Lab on the campus of Northeast Iowa Community College offers students of all ages a chance to explore and learn about the outdoors, including watching, counting and identifying native insects.

The neighbors benefit from the Lab as well. As the largest park in the small village, the habitat supports native animals and birds, facilitates cleaner water and promotes health. A visitor’s center helps educate the general public on the value of the native area.

The school’s administration is already aware of the Lab’s worth. The land functions as a cost-effective ground cover requiring only one-tenth the maintenance budget of a lawn. Lindblom hopes other Iowans embrace the benefits of prairies, especially if they live near a highway. The state plants native grasses alongside roads for soil and water health, but “recreational mowers” will often cut them down just for fun.

One-Hundred-Year-Old Arboretum in the Garden State

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ

A century ago a landowner gifted Rutgers with 180 acres. Today that gift is the Rutgers Gardens, a mix of woodland, meadow, research areas and public gardens used by the school and surrounding population alike. Students experiment with hazelnut trees, day lilies and hollies. There are certificate programs on plant breeding and the principles and practice of smallscale organic farming. You can also learn about public garden management.

Or you could just bring your dog and hang out for the day.

outdoor learning spaces: snow covered chairs


TAKE A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE. Historically, the Rutgers Gardens was comprised of a series of horticultural collections arranged in garden settings and spread over 50 acres. These collections and garden areas, the oldest of which dates back to 1927, including a holly collection, bamboo forest, a rain garden, a pollinator garden and more, feature a diverse variety of landscape plants with origins that span the globe. Open to the public 365 days a year, the Gardens provide and encourage educational exploration and enjoyment for both Rutgers’ students and the community at large.

The Gardens are supported by revenue streams large and small. A Mother’s Day plant sale brings in cash, as do about 750 annual members. The big money makers, however, are weddings, held in the WPAbuilt log cabin and pavilion every weekend during good weather.

“There are a lot of parks in this part of New Jersey, but they have sports fields or playgrounds,” reports public education coordinator Debbie Henry. Henry started as a volunteer at the Gardens, and for the last 20 years has seen locals and students delightfully discover them. “People always say ‘I didn’t know this was here,’” she reports.

Henry admits that there are difficulties in running such a large space where professors come, plant some research and leave. The bamboo forest, for instance, was developed by a professor looking into winter nesting options for bees. The professor is gone, but the forest remains — and spreads — every year. “We have volunteers from the Bamboo Society come to cull the trails,” she says. They also post signs in a variety of languages telling guests where they can, and cannot, harvest shoots for eating.

Campus Classroom, Local Asset

Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, Salisbury, NC

Though it is not yet completed, the Outdoor Learning Center Amphitheater takes advantage of the available land and natural resources of the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s 100-acre Salisbury, NC, campus to connect campus buildings and develop walking paths and natural spaces for student learning exercises, according to Carla G. Howell, chief officer/Governance, Foundation & Public Relations, for Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. She explains the project via email, which was edited for brevity.

outdoor learning spaces: flower garden


Phase One, an investment of $1 million, prepared the infrastructure for the 900-seat amphitheater. This project is designed to provide an opportunity for students to utilize the natural habitats of the outdoor learning center and the amphitheater for curriculumrelated projects and instruction, while also providing the greater Rowan County community with an outdoor performance venue.

The college envisions that several academic programs will utilize this space on a regular basis. For example, Biology classes will use the space to study natural environments, forest ecology, tree identification, measure water quality, determine stream quality and examine insects, as well as other biological-related experiments. Environmental Science classes will also conduct soil and water testing as well as identifying bacteria, insect census counts and examining different biomes.

The college’s Fine Arts program will use the amphitheater for musical performances. Art classes will use the space as a backdrop for painting and drawing the natural scenic landscape. Photography classes are another area in the Fine Arts curriculum that will greatly benefit from this development.

outdoor learning spaces: bamboo grove


The college’s active student life program envisions using the outdoor learning center and amphitheater space for student club activities, concerts and picnics. The college has no sports teams; the amphitheater will be a vital part of students’ quality of life.

In addition to being an important and rare amenity on the campus, the Rowan Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Rowan Convention and Visitors Bureau, have stated that the development of this project is an important component that they can market as a quality of life factor to attract additional economic development to the region. This will greatly benefit the local business community.

In these examples and countless others, colleges and universities across the country are reaping the benefits, educational and beyond, of integrating outdoor learning opportunities into their daily operations.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .