Project-based learning emphasizes ag, environment

Gloria Hafemeister


Members of the Wisconsin Women for Agriculture toured SAGES school in Fox Lake, a charter agriculture and environmental studies school.  Rock River WWA has donated funds and helped with activities at the school since its start.  Participants include (left to right) Lainey Fitch, Claudine Lehman, Gloria Hafemeister, Rosemary Eckhardt, Tyson Franke, Vicki Coughlin and Diane Qualmann.

A few flat stones under the SAGES sign in Fox Lake are name markers of the school’s first eighth-grade graduating class.

SAGES (School for Agricultural and Environmental Studies) is a charter school and a part of the Waupun School District.  It uses a project-based learning instructional approach built on authentic learning activities that engage student interest and motivation. Since opening in 2012, the school teaches all subject areas with an emphasis on agriculture and the environment.

Besides instruction from the teachers, students learn from a host of volunteers with farming or environmental backgrounds, and students are actively engaged in the Fox Lake community.

The school takes advantage of surrounding farms, woods and marshland for educational purposes, and, with help and ideas from students, the school yard is more than just a playground — it is a learning center.

With students engaged in the development of their outdoor classrooms, they also gain an educational edge and prepare themselves to be problem-solvers and leaders in the future.

Some of the students demonstrated their leadership skills and enthusiasm for learning when they guided the members of the Wisconsin Women for Agriculture on a tour of the school and the grounds.

Lainey Fitch, Tyson Franke and Johnny Casey enthusiastically explained the changes in the school yard since the school started.

One of the first projects was the development of a rain garden with deep-rooted native plants that capture water coming off the school's roof. Sixth-grade students helped with the calculations, planning and planting of the rain garden, learning every step of the way.

With help from a local Monarch butterfly enthusiast, the students have been monitoring the transformation of caterpillars to butterflies and learning about which plants attract them.

Using a recently obtained grant, the school is being further developed to make a “living school yard” with even more plants that utilize water captured from the roof. Students explained the plan is to remove the sidewalk and make an urban waterway with students timing how long it takes for water to run off compared with a second system that includes more natural stones and plants.

Students pick fresh fruits and vegetables from their school garden.  In the foreground is the trellis supporting bean stalks and providing a shelter for a small outdoor classroom.

Students lead

Students came up with many of the ideas, and teachers, administrators and the governance board listened. Students then created a video about the program and entered that video in a national competition in which they placed fourth. The cash prize was used to help finance their living playground.

In an area near the playground equipment, sunflowers and cup flowers stood tall, forming what appears to be the walls of a playhouse. The garden was the result of kindergarten students reading the book “Sunflower House” and then creating their own. Students came up with plans and voted on which plan to use.

The school has a garden, and classes enjoy not only planting but everything else involved in gardening, including food preservation and cooking. Younger students developed their own pizza garden, planting the ingredients in kindergarten in spring and harvesting them in fall as first-graders. Besides the tomatoes, peppers and herbs, they also used meat from a local livestock grower who came to the school for a presentation.

First-grade students reading “Jack and the Beanstalk” planted their own climbing beanstalks.

Community involvement

Next to the garden, the students enjoy raising chickens and gathering eggs, learning that as days get shorter, eggs get fewer. Students sold the eggs, but before doing so, went before the Fox Lake City Council to get a permit to sell.

Another time they went to the city council to propose starting a community garden. After getting approval, upper-grade students developed the garden. One of the students who helped started this project continued it through FFA after he went on to Waupun High School.

From the school’s start, students have been involved with dairy, and as time passes, they have learned the realities of dairy farming.

The school started with its first calf, NoNo, who went on to have a calf named Noel, who is now expecting her first calf.

The student guides reported, “Sadly NoNo passed away while giving birth.” That cow’s passing on the area farm where she resided provided an opportunity for teachers to talk about the realities of farming.

On another day, the students were taking part in a teleconference with a farmer. School principal Sherry Hicken said she could sense it wasn’t a good time for the farmer to be talking with the students. He said he was actually busy pulling a calf at the time.

“We stopped the session and let him do his work," Hicken said, "but it provided the opportunity to explain what he was doing.”

SAGES has received a lot of community and organization support since it started.

Wisconsin Women for Agriculture has been one of the enthusiastic supporters from the start. Rock River WWA Chapter president Claudine Lehman has enthusiastically helped at the school for events and encouraged the organization to provide assistance.

The tour provided an opportunity for WWA members from elsewhere in the state to see the school they had been hearing so much about from WWA members in the area.

The tour was at the conclusion of the WWA annual state conference that began on Monday with a tour of a farm that produces seed and markets bourbon from their homegrown corn, wheat and rye. The event continued with a program featuring speakers on farm safety and agricultural promotion.