Outdoor Learning and Sustainability Initiative at Forest Oak Middle School

October 01, 2019

Forest Oak Middle School (FOMS) is a public school in Montgomery County, MD that serves nearly 900 students, the majority of which are Hispanic and African-American. The FOMS campus is unique in that it contains a variety of ecosystem types, including forest, stream, and meadow areas. Regrettably, the students only experience these natural settings tangentially during occasional outdoor PE activities. FOMS teachers and staff experience the outdoors even less frequently. Our project is an ambitious, multiyear, multi-element effort to create outdoor learning and reflection spaces, improve wildlife habitat, and provide opportunities to teach about healthy farming and eating.

Our project includes construction of raised beds, restoration of an outdoor forest/stream learning area, conversion of an area of turf grass to meadow with butterfly garden, installation of bird houses, and construction of an outdoor commons area with mindfulness labyrinth (i.e. Commons). The raised beds and learning area restoration were completed on Earth Day 2018 with help from teachers, students and community members. Implementation of the butterfly garden, birdhouses, and Commons will begin on Earth Day 2019 and will also involve the participation of FOMS staff, students, and community members.

When completed, all outdoor learning spaces will be incorporated into the curriculum for lesson planning. Spending time in nature, whether nurturing plants, observing ecosystems, or just being more mindful of outdoor surroundings, will increase awareness of environmental stewardship responsibilities while making learning more enjoyable.

The Commons is considered the centerpiece project element. By creating a Commons area that is immediately adjacent to the school, protected from the elements, and aesthetically pleasing, the opportunity for students and staff to experience the outdoors, even if only for brief periods, will be vastly improved. As designed, the Commons will provide seating for at least 22 people in the form of a learning circle. It will be used for both formal instruction & informal congregation, including outdoor relaxation and recharge. The learning circle will be surrounded by a stepping stone labyrinth based on a traditional Celtic design that will allow users to walk a mindfulness path before reaching the center. The function and aesthetics will be enhanced through the planting of vegetation, as well as inclusion of a centerpiece, such as an analemmatic sundial, where the students can act as the gnomon, or shadow-casting object.

The design of the Commons incorporates numerous sustainability features, including pervious pavers beneath the seating to enhance rainwater infiltration, as well as selection of vegetation that provides high wildlife habitat value. Additionally, the stepping stones for the labyrinth are more environmentally friendly than a paved concrete path. The stones allow for more grass, natural drainage, and reduction of the urban heat island effect compared to a paved walkway. Outside of the stepping stones there will be a ring of Red Osier Dogwood bushes. This vegetation is native to Maryland and will make a great addition near the school because it will provide a home for birds and insects while improving separation from buildings for mindfulness.

In addition to creating habitat within the Commons, students will be creating community habitats. They will learn about meadow ecosystems and replace an area of turf grass near the forest edge with butterfly habitat. They will also learn about forest ecosystems, and make and install bird houses around the forest perimeter to improve avian habitat. The students new understanding of ecosystems will help them further improve local wildlife habitat in their community and their own backyards if they so choose.

The new wildlife habitat areas, along with the restored forest/stream learning area and the Commons, will allow teachers to move their classes outdoors. One sustainability side-benefit will be that lights can be turned off inside the building, saving electricity and reducing carbon emissions.

All outdoor elements will be maintained by students who will earn Student Service Learning (SSL) hours. This will include activities such as raising herbs and vegetables in the raised beds, maintaining forest trails, removing invasive weeds from the meadow, and seasonally cleaning bird houses.

Not only will this project have a positive impact on the environment, it will also have a long-term impact on school and community pride. The existing FOMS campus, while functional, is unremarkable, especially compared to newer or more specialized schools in the area. Establishing these project elements will help instill a much-needed sense of student and staff pride in the environment surrounding the school and will even create opportunities for increased community use of the campus outside of normal school hours. These side benefits, in combination with the resulting educational, aesthetic, health, and sustainability improvements, mean this project will have a profound impact on everyone that uses the FOMS campus now and in the future. Many community members have donated money to the project and are looking forward to enjoying the new elements.


Students attended


Staff attended


Additional Volunteers attended


Students will be impacted this year

Intended impact of project

Reduced environmental impact

Impact of project

Educated on sustainable skills and practices
Educated on sustainability knowledge
Environmental restoration
Improved environmental & sustainability literacy
Beautification of school/site
Energy and/or water conservation
Waste reduction

More impact of project

The Commons, raised beds, forest/stream learning area, birdhouses, and butterfly garden will provide excellent opportunities for students and the community to observe and nurture living things, learn about and appreciate nature, and become healthier, more engaged, and more mindful. The addition of vegetation and bird houses to the campus will increase the quality of the natural habitat around the school, while student understanding of ecosystems will help them translate environmental stewardship to the wider community. All project elements will help to improve the sustainability of the FOMS campus while instilling a sense of community pride for years to come. This project did not require any data collection. Our team completed the first two project elements (i.e. raised beds and restoration of forest/stream learning area) last year and finished the planning portion of the remaining elements this year. While we have already raised much of the money needed to complete the remaining elements, the team will need some additional time to fundraise, integrate lesson plans, engage students and community volunteers, and complete construction. The implementation of the Commons, butterfly garden, and birdhouses will commence on Earth Day 2019, but it is expected that construction of all elements, especially the Commons, will not be completed until the Fall of 2019 or Spring of 2020.
We want to give students every opportunity to participate in and learn from this project. There are many activities planned this spring. First, the students will be creating personalized stepping stones. These stones will draw the students to the Commons, help them feel connected to nature on a more regular basis, and allow them to establish a lasting, personal legacy at the school. Students will also be planting herbs in the raised beds and constructing bird houses to place in the trees around the school. Our hope is that by giving students time to get involved in our environmental efforts, they will learn to make more sustainable choices in the future. To reach our goal we will need additional time to create the best spaces we can for the students and community.
Connection would be between with the science units between all grade levels. Yes, we wanted community involvement to help give ownership to the project and to open up doors to make deeper connections with community members. A local Latino Fraternity volunteered their time and manpower to help move washed out bridges.