By Mary Ashton Mills

Outdoor classrooms are sprouting up in schools across the CSRA faster than Jack’s proverbial beanstalk. These new classrooms give students the opportunity to enhance what they have learned in a textbook by applying their knowledge outside with hands on experience. Elements of outdoor classrooms range from organic raised-bed gardens and food plots to state-of-the-art aquaponic systems, solar-powered fish tanks and greenhouses.

This generation of students is environmentally conscious and empowered with knowledge and resources to support this trend. Academic achievements and test scores are excellent indicators of success, but encouraging a student to use critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in a different environment helps to round out their education. Follow along as we tour some of the outdoor classrooms in the CSRA.

Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School

Under the direction of Carl Hammond-Beyer, Science Educator, AP Biology teacher, AP Environmental and Anatomy teacher, Davidson will be the first school to have a fully “off the grid” aquaponic garden. Imagine a fish tank filled with water and stocked with fish. On top of the fish tank is a planter with space for several plants to grow and holes for their root systems to touch the water below. The roots of the plants that touch the water of the fish tank are supplied the nutrients they need. In turn, the plants filter the water for the fish. This is aquaponic gardening. Add a solar panel to power the pump and you’ve got solar powered aquaponic gardening.

Suddenly the maintenance issues of a soil garden such as weeding, pest control and fertilizing are non-existent and the garden is self-sufficient. Plants grow 20 to 30 percent faster than they do in the soil because the roots are getting the nutrients quicker without having to filter through the soil.

Aquaponic gardens can be grown indoors and any time of the year with proper lighting and equipment. At Davidson, students learn this process from a large fish tank located in a greenhouse as well as a newly installed pond with floating rafts to house growing plants. Thanks to a generous grant from the PotashCorp, this new pond will serve as another teaching opportunity. “We really want the students to be thinking about the future and where their food comes from,” says Hammond-Beyer. Garden City Hydroponics sells the supplies and equipment needed to begin a hydroponic or aquaponic garden and has been involved with implementing the gardens at several area schools including Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School and Warren Road Elementary.

At Davidson, students are also raising trout in the aquaponics tank to be stocked in the Augusta Canal next fall. Hammond-Beyer says that learning the complexity of the Savannah River ecosystem is challenging, but one that obviously presents a great teaching opportunity.

Episcopal Day School

At the school’s newly acquired land on Flowing Wells Road, Episcopal Day School students constructed and planted over 30 raised-bed gardens last year. The school reaped the rewards of a prolific harvest thanks to the hard work of the children in each grade. Joe Kirstein, Boardman Chair of Science and Sustainability at Episcopal Day School led the installation of the raised beds last year and plans to double the garden in the spring.

Students first learned the process of starting plants from seeds by using milk cartons and Dixie cups to start seeds on campus. While the seeds were germinating indoors, field trips were in place to the Flowing Wells Campus to construct the beds and prep the soil. Then children were able to transfer the baby plants into the soil.

Harvesting was an exciting time at EDS as each grade took part in the harvest. Third graders harvested and cooked kale and collards in class, the lunchroom saw an increase of fresh lettuce once a week on the salad bar, squash casserole was a staple on the lunchroom menu and perhaps one of the biggest successes came in the way of philanthropy. In conjunction with their Thanksgiving chapel service, students and faculty were able to fill a large number of bags of fresh produce for The Christ Episcopal Church Community Meal program in Harrisburg.

The Flowing Wells Campus, currently in phase II of development, will house an athletic complex, ropes course, science educational areas and much more. Currently EDS is using every opportunity possible to incorporate the land’s resources into the learning experience of each grade. Several times a year 3rd and 4th graders participate in a 4-H program at the Flowing Wells Outdoor Campus. Aside from installing and planting the gardens, 4th graders enjoyed a lesson on the concept of buoyancy. Students were allowed to explore the Flowing Wells property in search of natural items to construct a boat. The only material they were given was a two-foot piece of string. Students used magnolia leaves, sticks and various natural objects to engineer a makeshift boat. The boats were then loaded with pennies and put to the test in the water as the lesson in buoyancy put a smile on their faces.

Headmaster Dr. Ned Murray looks forward to the opportunity this new campus affords from both an outreach and spiritual perspective. He hopes it can be a resource for the CSRA, not just EDS students. “I can envision area 3rd and 4th graders visiting the Flowing Wells Campus with our students to learn how to start their own garden projects on their campuses. They might even leave with starter plants or bedding materials as a gift from us,” he says. “Similarly, I can see our 8th graders leading team building and communications workshops on our low ropes course for other area middle school groups—or even corporate groups.” In addition Dr. Murray is in hopes that this outdoor setting will provide a place for quiet reflection, worship, prayer and fellowship in the outdoors.

Euchee Creek Elementary School

At Euchee Creek Elementary School in Harlem, students and teachers have dreamed of a Learning Garden since 2013. Hoping it would be a nice place for small-group instruction, conferencing and free reading, they applied for a Lowe’s “Toolbox for Education” grant and received it. Not only did they receive the grant, they also received support from the local Lowe’s store on Washington Road, in Evans. They graciously supplied ECE with guidance, materials, plants and volunteers,” says Jacqueline Alicea, a teacher at Euchee Creek.

Students, faculty and parents from the community joined forces to construct the garden. “A senior from Harlem High School, Jacob Williams, donated his time to construct the greenhouse. He developed his senior project around starting a greenhouse,” says Alicea. “This has truly been a community effort as parents, family and friends, and local businesses have donated their time and materials to support the ECE Learning Garden.” Today the Learning Garden grows flowers, herbs and bananas.


Mary Ashton Mills lives in Augusta with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared in Charleston Magazine, The Post and Courier and Augusta Family Magazine.

This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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