Modesto City Schools is investing in six outdoor learning environments to help inspire the next generation of sustainability initiatives and leaders.

Outdoor learning helps our district’s students see sustainability in action

Modesto City Schools is investing in six outdoor learning environments to help inspire the next generation of sustainability leaders

Key points:

  • Sustainability initiatives are increasingly important to school districts, students, and their communities
  • One school district is combining sustainability initiatives with STEM learning to empower students in their learning
  • See related article: How outdoor learning spaces lead to STEM engagement

Modesto City Schools is located in Northern California, and we receive more than 260 days of sunlight annually. While the sunshine typically provides ideal climate conditions, it can also be a double-edged sword. For several years, California residents have been affected by drought and have gained a thorough understanding of the need for water frugality and sustainable lifestyles.

Modesto City Schools has prioritized sustainability initiatives designed to address climate change, reduce our carbon footprint, combat air pollution, and educate the next generation of students about a sustainable lifestyle—and that includes renewable energy.

Our district has invested in several infrastructure upgrades including: the electrification of our school bus fleet, the construction of vehicle charging stations, solar PV parking structures, and the transition to battery powered maintenance equipment.

While these projects are critical to our sustainability journey, Modesto City Schools has taken the initiative a step further by investing in the construction of six new Sustainable Outdoor Learning Environments (SOLES) to help inspire the next generation of sustainability leaders.

These SOLES are part of our school’s mission to challenge and empower every student, every day, while enhancing existing science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) curriculums. Providing specialized educational opportunities like these isn’t always easy, especially on a public-school budget. That’s why, when the federal government unveiled its three Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding rounds, we jumped at the opportunity to further enhance our students’ pathways to success.

Leveraging the funds took a concerted effort between Modesto City Schools and various partners, including Schneider Electric. Timelines to obligate funds were narrow, so we knew we had to act quickly.

Groundbreaking project lights the way for outdoor learning

The concept, a Sustainable Outdoor Learning Environment (SOLE), made the most of our regional climate’s position as both a sunny locale and a constant reminder about the need for sustainability. It would enable students to learn outside — something that became imperative as the pandemic stretched into its second year — while also teaching them how to use natural, renewable resources for conservation.

The outdoor structures, planned to be complete for the 2023-24 school year, are also first-of-the-kind for our district and include a 2,000-square-foot covered outdoor classroom that features natural lighting, fresh air, open space, and energy efficiency.

With no doors or walls, the outdoor learning spaces use solar rooftops and 120-volt power to run instructional TVs, interactive whiteboards, and other small equipment. The spaces, equivalent to two classrooms in size, contain flexible furniture on wheels to provide a learning environment that can adapt to various student and instructional needs.

SOLE conserves energy, empowers students

Our SOLE project serves as an example for other districts to follow, so that even more students can see sustainability in action while learning valuable STEM skills.

Modesto City Schools utilized general fund flexibility by ESSER funding offsets to pay for the SOLE additions. Furthermore, we anticipate these facilities to be eligible for the Investment Tax Credit Direct Pay program from the Inflation Reduction Act – though this is not the primary reason for implementing the innovative solution to a years-long challenge. By combining sustainability with hands-on learning, we hope to give students exciting, real-world experiences in conserving what we have, and appreciating the beauty of our natural resources.

Innovation sparks innovation, and this state-of-the-art classroom is sure to ignite our students’ creativity and joy for outdoor learning opportunities.

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