MANSFIELD -- Springmill STEM Elementary School's new outdoor learning space will be designed by those with the biggest stake in the outcome -- its students.

The school recently received a $10,000 grant from Directions Credit Union to build an outdoor classroom and science observatory. The project was spearheaded by Springmill’s third grade class.

“We actually gave the idea to the students and told them we wanted to create an outdoor learning space for them,” said Andrea Murphy, a third grade teacher at Springmill. “The students kind of took this and have been working on it all year long.”

In the fall, Murphy showed her third grade class pictures of outdoor learning stations and Nelson Treehouses. She then asked them to design one of their own.

Students came up with various stations for hands-on learning, each focusing on a different aspect of elementary science curriculum. A weather station will have tools to measure humidity, temperature, rainfall and wind direction. A station with magnifying glasses will allow for examining and sorting different types of bugs and plants. Other stations are themed around water, magnets, habitats and natural resources.

The students also identified some necessary safety improvements at existing school facilities. Adding safety rails and repairing the stairs on a woodland nature trail are top priorities.

The design process is just one example of Springmill’s focus on project-based learning, a method in which teachers present a real-world problem and let their students investigate that problem and come up with their own solution.

"These are the types of projects that exemplify stem learning,” said Springmill Principal Regina Sackman. "You identify real world problems and facilitate ways for students to work on and solve those problems and that's exactly what our students have done, based on their research."

The class worked together to brainstorm in the fall, then broke into teams. One team sketched the design; another used a banking simulation website to develop a budget. A third team will be in charge of giving tours to the public once the project is completed. The class also wrote Pete Nelson, host of Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters, and asked him to come to Mansfield and build them a treehouse.

A few months later, the students began to consider their fundraising options. Murphy applied for the Directions Credit Union grant earlier this year, basing her application on the class design.

Jenni Paramore, community outreach education manager at Directions, said 26 schools across Ohio applied for the grant. Three were awarded -- one to Springmill STEM and the other two to schools in the Toledo area.

“We were just so excited that the STEM school was one of those (winners)," Paramore said. "From the very beginning, it was one of our whole teams' favorites. Even though it's a third grade project, all the students there will benefit ultimately from an outdoor classroom.”

To apply for the grant, schools had to discuss how the pandemic had impacted learning and how the grant money could be used to minimize that impact. While the outdoor learning space will be a helpful resource for years to come, Sackman said it's especially useful during the pandemic.

The school has had to limit student group work -- a big component of STEM education and project based learning -- due to social distancing guidelines. Outside in the fresh air, there are fewer restrictions on mask wearing and group sizes.

Plus, outdoor learning has a number of social and emotional benefits.

"A lot of research shows that time spent connecting with nature fosters brain development, creative problem solving and of course decreases stress, so the use of our woods is valuable in many ways,” Sackman said.

Now that the class has secured funding for their project, students are revisiting their plans and scaling them according to project costs and the resources available.

"They're learning the life skill of prioritizing needs,” Sackman said. “Now they have their budget and they're looking at what it can do for them.”

The students are continuing to work on the project by researching material costs and talking with contractors. School leaders hope to partner with local businesses and community members willing to donate time and work with the class.

Sackman and Murphy could not say exactly when the construction phase of the project will begin -- that depends on the students. Once they finalize their project plan, they have to present it to Sackman and district Supt. Stan Jefferson for approval.

As they put the finishing touches on their plans, third graders are prioritizing safety and usability for all grade levels -- from preschool through fourth grade.

“There's no better way to help children become conscientious citizens who are going to actively positively impact their community than facilitating projects like this,” Sackman said. "They're thinking about the whole school community.”

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Staff reporter focused on education and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. You can reach me at