Outdoor classroom Granville Land Lab provides educational opportunities, wildlife habitat
Granville Intermediate has something most school properties don’t: tall-grass prairies and wetlands, an apiary and Dolly and Dixie – a pair of resident goats who keep the weeds down in a small fruit tree orchard.
“The ultimate goal here is not just for conservation, but also for education, research and discovery,” said Granville High School AP environmental science and ecology teacher Jim Reding, whose students sowed the seeds of the land project a decade ago.
Reding challenges his students to complete “take action” projects that ask students to identify a problem and then find a solution.
In doing one such project in 2013, students had the idea to turn about five acres of school board-owned land into a small wetland surrounded by prairie, Reding said. They got in touch with Brent Sodergren, who at the time was a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, which restores habitat on private property.
“The ultimate goal here is not just for conservation, but also for education, research and discovery.”Jim Reding, Granville High School science teacher
As Reding and Sodergren tell it, they were walking across what was then farmland when Sodergren suggested Reding’s students think a little bigger.
“And he said, well, why don't you do all of this?” Reding said. “And my comment was, 'what, we can't afford to do all this.' And he literally stopped in the middle of field, turned, and looked at me and said, 'well, I thought we were paying for this.'”
A decade later, the Granville Land Lab – a name that Reding and Sodergren invented to capture its unique nature – spans almost 100 acres.
What had been fields of corn and soybeans grown by a tenant farmer now buzzes with pollinators moving through wild white indigo, dog bane hemp and beebalm. Reding said more than 170 species of birds have been seen there, and many animals.
The Land Lab was the first project to expand a previous, much less ambitious schoolyard habitat program, Sodergren said. That program focused on small pollinator gardens that were more about aesthetics than about creating wildlife habitat, he said.
The Granville Land Lab, however, has grown into an “exceptional wildlife habitat,” he said. It has also proved a valuable educational resource for students of all ages and a great place for the community. The trails curve through the expansive prairie and are open to the public.
“Unbeknownst to me at the time, [this] would turn into the greatest project I have ever been part of,” Sodergren said.
The Land Lab is also a college lab for students at nearby Denison University.
Biology professors Jessica Rettig and Geoff Smith and their students have been conducting research at the Land Lab from the beginning. While Denison has its own established biological reserve, Smith and Rettig said starting with a “blank slate” at the Land Lab was different.
“So, the – the basic question as ecologists is if you're going to reclaim land and try to turn it back into something more natural than a corn field or a soybean field, how does that restoration process actually work?” Rettig said. “How quickly do different plant species, different animal species arrive?”
She gave the example of the turtles who have made homes in the wetlands.
“They're not, you know, texting each other, ‘hey, I found a new pond,’ but turtles show up and reproduce,” she said.
As for the students, the collaboration between the university and school district gives them the opportunity to work with and learn from each other and different teachers.
Reding said that dozens of students from kindergarten to college have all been at the Land Lab at once.
“They were working on their own projects, but just to have a classroom in which you can have 150 kids and all doing productive work was kind of a neat thing,” he said.
“They're much more invested in it and they take ownership of it more than if we just sort of force them to do one thing that they didn't want to do.”-Geoff Smith, Denison University biology professor
Professor Rettig noted that when Jim Reding’s high school students first pitched the project to the Granville Board of Education, they talked about “nature deficit,” or the fact that many kids don’t spend much time outside.
“The Land Lab is a way to get outside and very quickly see some different things, not just one grassy field,” Rettig said.
Reding said the Land Lab is different from a park because students can pick flowers, go off-trail, and do experiments.
And biology professor Smith added that the variety of habitats means students can choose what they’d like to learn.
“They're much more invested in it and they take ownership of it more than if we just sort of force them to do one thing that they didn't want to do,” Smith said.
Recent Granville High School graduate Hayden Kirkham is one of three former students taking care of the goats over the summer. He says he didn’t always recognize the Land Lab's uniqueness.
“So, now I kind of have more of an appreciation of it, especially after taking care of the goats,” Kirkham said. “So, like I've seen like animals, which I'd normally not seen. Like, I saw skunk the other day.”
Kirkham is headed to college at Ohio Wesleyan University this fall and is considering pursuing zoology or environmental science. He said he thinks the Land Lab has given him useful hands-on experience that will help him in the next step of his education.
The Granville Land Lab is always changing – both naturally and thanks to additions from more student “take action” projects, Eagle Scout projects and community support.
Reding said the next step could be transforming another 40 acres into a short grass prairie and maybe even bringing in cattle. Plus, he wants to get a few more goats – the animals engage the younger children at the intermediate school and fertilize the fruit trees in the orchard.
In the meantime, Rettig and Smith are continuing their research and keep an eye on the trail cameras.
With the help of the Granville Fire Department, the prairies are burned once a year, said Reding, who explained that’s the natural way to maintain a prairie land. The event usually draws attention from the community, he said.
And Granville’s Land Lab has become a talking point for U.S. Fish and Wildlife and is inspiring similar projects at schools and on private properties across the state, said Sodergren.
“And today you would be hard-pressed to find a more successfully diverse schoolyard habitat project anywhere in the country,” he said.