After Brownsville first grade teacher Erica McLaughlin’s mother, Mary Eades, passed away two years ago, McLaughlin thought deeply about how to honor her memory. Eades had been an avid gardener and donations in her name had poured into the Rivanna Garden Club, where she’d been an active member, but McLaughlin wasn’t sure what kind of project she should pursue.
“One day I was walking through the school and I noticed the large, enclosed courtyard towards the front of the building, accessible only from inside, with nothing in it except an overgrown wild cherry tree,” she said. “It was tucked away and so quiet, and I thought it would be the perfect place for a garden.”
Beginning with only the seed of her idea and the support of the Rivanna Garden Club, McLaughlin began weaving a web of community connections to help realize her vision. A key partner was the Piedmont Landscape Association (PLA), a nonprofit group that promotes education by bringing together gardening enthusiasts with landscape professionals. “We found Jessica Prim, a landscape architect who does sustainable landscape design and who is affiliated with the PLA, and she gifted her services to the project.”
Prim’s design features two crushed stone pads on either end of the 3,750 square foot space, one of which lies below a wall-mounted chalkboard and a set of wooden benches for open air lessons. Two large pollinator beds flank the cherry tree, and three areas of native plantings representing regions of Virginia—Tidewater, Piedmont, and mountain/valley—adorn the outdoor classroom area. Raised beds, which will host bulbs and herbs, will be available for teachers to use for special projects or experiments with their classes.
McLaughlin’s next big alliance was with Brownsville PTO dad Nelson Zapata, owner of PMC, a local property design and maintenance company. “Nelson was on the grounds beautification committee and he had all of the tools and expertise we needed to make this happen,” she said. “He worked tirelessly on this project, and if it weren’t for him, it would not and could not have been done.”
McLaughlin and Zapata recruited 40 of their friends from the garden club, the PLA, and Brownsville staff and parents for the heaviest lift of all—clearing and preparing the garden foundation in September. “We hadn’t really taken into consideration that since the garden was accessible only from regular doors inside the school, we could not get big machines in there,” said McLaughlin. “Everything would have to be done by hand.” That meant carrying more than 13 tons of gravel in, and dirt out, all by shovel and wheelbarrow.
“It was a huge push, and such a wonderful community effort,” she said. Many more volunteer hours followed during the school year as McLaughlin’s father constructed wooden benches out of fir for the outdoor classroom space, and the Crozet Trails Crew built a large garden shed to hold equipment and supplies. Local tree companies Van Yahres and Bartlett (both members of the PLA) donated services to trim and strengthen the huge wild cherry tree, repair the raised beds, and remove stumps.
After months of work by McLaughlin and Zapata on their own time, the garden is ready to be shared with the school community, and McLaughlin hopes that teachers will take advantage of the outdoor space with their classes, and that children will be inspired by it. As for what to call the new school garden, McLaughlin said the name will evolve.
“One person donated a plaque that says ‘Mary’s Peace Garden,’ because my mom loved nature as a peaceful place to be, to contemplate and to find quiet solitude,” she said. “Some of the kids call it the ‘Secret Garden,’ after the children’s book, and I like that, too, because my mom loved to read, and the message in that book is that people can come together and overcome great obstacles and find friendship. It may just be many things to many people, and that’s perfect.”
Even after decades of experience in planning class lessons, Meriwether Lewis third grade teacher Anne Straume is always on the lookout for something new. Well past the days of browsing educational magazines, she now hunts for fresh materials and techniques on the internet and social media. “I had seen something on Twitter about a different way of approaching the study of simple machines in Europe,” she said, “and I sent out a tweet to my own network colleagues to see if anyone else was interested.”
The site Straume found was MyMachine-global.org, a Belgian organization that advocates a three-part collaboration between elementary, secondary, and higher education students through project-based learning in the form of developing simple machines. The idea is that the three groups share knowledge and skills to make a “dream” into a reality, and Straume was excited about its potential for Albemarle students, as was Henley Middle School principal Beth Costa.
“Beth picked up on it right away on Twitter, but after that it lay dormant for a while,” said Straume. “Finally, Beth checked back in and wouldn’t let it die, and it was [Learning Technology Integrator] Sandy Shaffer who got the project organized across all three schools. She really took the bull by the horns.”
The plan was for Straume’s elementary students to imagine and draw a simple machine, which is a mechanism that uses basic mechanical devices for applying force, such as an inclined plane, wedge, or lever. “I told them to let their imagination soar, that they should design any type of machine, using two of the devices we were studying, to make work easier,” said Straume. “They prepared a brief write-up about what the machine could do and any intricacies or special design features it had.”
The designs, such as a machine that doled out dog food, one that shot a basketball, and an art bot that could draw a picture, were then sent to Henley’s CTE students led by Jon Barber. The Henley students used 123 Design software to create 3D models of the machines as blueprints for the final phase, which guided Monticello High School CTE students, taught by Mike Jennings, in actually building the machines.
“It’s an authentic, real world project,” said Shaffer. “The students had to begin with an idea, make a plan for it, get the parts for it, test it out, and if the plan didn’t work, they had to modify it and go through that cycle again.” Some machines had to be built as prototypes, such as one that was initially designed to be 29 feet long, but most ended up doing the job they were intended to do.
A grand unveiling of the finished projects took place at Meriwether Lewis, where the third graders got to see their dream machines for the first time. The students gasped in delight as they gave their machines a whirl. One MLS student had designed a pasta maker with three sections for the process, and another had dreamed up a lamp with exchangeable cutout filters to project shapes on walls for fun at parties.
“One thing I thought was especially cool was that the middle school and high school kids took so much more ownership of the work, so they wouldn’t disappoint the younger ones,” said Straume.
MLS parent Daniel Stinnette, a consulting engineer, lauded praise on Straume for her hard work on this “awesome” project. “Too often, tech is reduced to doing math problems on an iPad,” said Stinnette, “but this is practical experience for the real world, so that when they get there it will feel natural to them. It’s so important.”
Straume was gratified by the efforts of all of the staff across the three schools who went the extra mile for the Dream Machine project, including meeting at Wegman’s to hand off drawings and hauling the machines back and forth in their cars. “I think when we do this again, we’ll start a little earlier,” she said with a smile, but she knows the work was worth it. “My favorite line from one of my students was, ‘Oh, when we’re in middle school and high school, we can do this for the elementary kids,’ so they’re already looking forward to collaborating in the future.”
Grants for Gardening
Crozet Elementary and Western Albemarle High School received grants for great projects this year from the Piedmont Master Gardeners, a nonprofit group of volunteer educators.
The school combined the grant with funds from the PTO to support an Earth Day Planting Day on April 22. Second grade students paired up with kindergarteners to plant 72 quart-size perennials around the school, including in the front gardens, a butterfly garden, a rain garden and urns in the courtyard. This was followed by a Dig and Get Dirty Day on May 7, when second graders added another 30 perennials to Crozet School’s landscape.
“We began involving second graders in an annual planting campaign five years ago,” said Barbara Huneycutt, a second grade teacher at Crozet School. “Students research the care and needs of their plants, learn what they provide for pollinators and other animals, and then watch them come back year after year all the way through fifth grade. This builds an appreciation for nature and a feeling of real ownership of the garden.”
At Western’s Environmental Studies Academy, a grant from the Piedmont Master Gardeners funded the purchase of materials for planting microgreens in the school’s greenhouse. Science teacher Dawn Tinder said a trial planting this spring gave horticulture students valuable insights into the amount of seed, soil and light needed for a successful crop. With these lessons learned, they will initiate weekly microgreen starts in the fall.
Crozet Elementary and WAHS were among 22 schools and community organizations that received educational grants from the Piedmont Master Gardeners this year.