As the University of Wisconsin-Platteville welcomes students back to campus this week, faculty and staff are rethinking concepts of traditional learning space and bringing classrooms outside. Earlier this week, a group of 30 student volunteers built and installed 50 wooden benches, over a two-day period, to create a series of outdoor class spaces in time for the first day of the semester.
The project was led by Amy Seeboth-Wilson, UW-Platteville sustainability coordinator.
“As sustainability coordinator, I always feel it’s important for people to have experiences outdoors in nature,” said Seeboth-Wilson. “We know that spending time outdoors helps reduce stress and improve immune function. New research is now also showing that outdoor classes can also positively impact student attention spans. As we learned that coronavirus is an airborne disease, I began talking to others to see if they had an interest in outdoor classes. When several faculty said they did, we began to figure out how we could make something happen.”
The outdoor classrooms became a reality, thanks to a campus-wide collaboration. Seeboth-Wilson first enlisted help from the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Science Shop, managed by Paul Dorsey, who helped create the initial bench design. Dr. Philip Parker, associate dean of the College of EMS, delivered materials to the shop and assisted in modifying the bench design. Tom Cabezas and Kelly Tollefson, shop supervisors in Engineering Hall, then developed a prototype. Cabezas cut out 300 pieces in order to allow construction of the benches to take place in the two-day period. He and Tollefson then developed the drilling and assembly jigs and processes, and managed the students working to assemble the benches. They were able to construct a bench every six minutes.
Valerie Wetzel, Markee assistant director – involvement, then incorporated this project into the Pioneers Pay It Forward program – a Welcome Weekend program that teams groups of student volunteers with projects around the community or campus.
The seven outdoor classrooms are located on both the southeast and southwest sides of Karrmann Library, outside of Ullsvik Hall, Pioneer Tower, Ottensman Hall, Doudna Hall, and in the Edible Garden between Royce and McGregor halls. To select the spaces, Seeboth-Wilson said they considered geography – attempting to spread them across campus – in addition to identifying spaces that did not need to be mowed and, if possible, had some form of shelter.
The spaces are recommended for classes that do not require technology and have 30 students or fewer. They can also be used by students in need of a space to join a class virtually, while on campus.
Seeboth-Wilson said the project has been well-received, and she is already aware of classes, across all three colleges, that plan to utilize the spaces. She said that if they are well used, she hopes to see some of them remain a permanent fixture on campus.
“It’s a great way to get students exposed to the natural environment,” said Seeboth-Wilson. “We have 120 acres of open space on campus, and I like to consider it our largest laboratory. Using it for academics just makes sense.”
For classroom use, outdoor spaces must be reserved in advance. For more information on the spaces and to reserve them, visit https://go.uwplatt.edu/outdoor-classrooms.