At Shakopee High, teachers Ed Loiselle and Billy Koenig are big fans of “place-based” education — the idea that meaningful learning happens when students engage with the community around them, including the natural environment.

The philosophy requires a strong connection to a place — and for Koenig, Loiselle and their students, that place is the Environmental Learning Center (ELC), a free-standing classroom that sits on the edge of the high school’s campus, surrounded by plenty of open space.

This week, the ELC will celebrate its grand opening, now that classes meet there six periods a day and the structure is completely paid for.

Many community organizations, from the district to the Mdewakanton Sioux tribe and Shakopee-based Rahr Malting Co., have given money and time — more than $260,000 in all — to the project.

The ELC has been in the works for five years and began as just four walls and a slab of concrete, the result of a $50,000 Lowe’s grant, Loiselle said. Construction classes from the high school completed the structure, learning building basics as they went.

Since then, it’s “just kind of blossomed” into a project the whole community supports, Loiselle said. “Everyone kind of added an idea … so it morphed into something really special,” he said.

Now, Koenig’s biology classes are studying biodiversity by counting the types of insects they find in the trees and grass and participating in a bee pollination study. There are beehives on site, thanks to the Mdewakanton Sioux community’s expertise.

There’s an orchard of apple and apricot trees, where students in special education classes picked fruit last spring. And the harvest from the gardens produced peppers and tomatoes that students in food classes used to make salsa.

“It’s no longer an appendage to our program — it’s part of our educational programming now,” Principal Kim Swift said.

Classes also help out by researching the Minnesota River, as part of a $5 million federal grant in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, Koenig said.

In the spring, the ELC hosts fourth-graders for an outdoor learning day, in which students learn about beehives from a Mdewakanton expert and hear a DNR representative talk about conservation.

There’s also a wind turbine and 24 solar panels on the roof, “so students can study directly how much energy is produced” by each source, Swift said.

The two sources provide all the energy needed to run the ELC, and students can track the amount of energy produced by the windmill with a computer program. The Shakopee Public Utilities Commission also sees it as a way to demonstrate to the community how alternative energy works, Loiselle said.

Hands-on learning

Loiselle and Koenig’s team-taught class on environmental ethics and ecology combines social studies and science for two periods a day. The unifying factor of the class has been “place-based” education, Loiselle said.

“We’re pushing kids out into the community and then they come back … where they can reflect on [what they’ve learned] and actually perform the concept, rather than reading, taking some notes on it, and that’s it,” Loiselle said.“It’s really been a way to kind of change our style of teaching.”

Half of the students’ grade is based on a community service project they choose, and students can often be seen working on those projects outside, where there’s a pond and prairie to explore.

“We’re not trying to tell them which way to think. We want to present the information to them, then they … do the research, and then produce something that has some impact,” Loiselle said.

One DNR-led project has four students cleaning up Eagle Creek in Savage. The creek is a 10-minute drive from school, and the project’s goal is to increase the number of trout there, said senior Sean Thompson. The group is testing the creek’s water, collecting data on its pH, turbidity and nitrate levels. They’re also removing buckthorn, an invasive species, and will eventually dismantle a beaver dam to increase the amount of oxygen in the water.

The class is motivating, Thompson said, because “sometimes you feel like you’re just learning things for the test, but with this, you’re just learning for yourself.”

“I feel this is something I’ll actually use,” said Alec Pauly, a senior in the group who wants to work for the DNR one day.

In the future, Loiselle said he sees the ELC being used by school and community groups year round, for many purposes. A school club, called Students Understanding Nature, already meets there, and the Girl Scouts have used the area, too.

“I think the vision of this space will kind of grow and evolve over time,” Loiselle said.