Colegio Los Nogales’ Zasqua: A ‘Living Laboratory’
Posted: 31 July 2018
Zasqua is a bio-reserve nestled in the campus of Colombia’s Colegio Los Nogales school. The site is used like a ‘living laboratory’ allowing students of all ages to care for the environment and its animals, run experiments, and record and analyse data. The site functions as an outdoor classroom for many curriculum subjects and has become a school community focal point for a whole host of activities. The project has generated many positive environmental benefits but also helped broaden students’ skills, improve their engagement in their studies, and support their overall well-being.
Author and position: Pedro Felipe Linares, Zasqua Manager and Expedition Leader
Zasqua is a stunning 1 hectare forest and wetland bioreserve in the heart of the Colegio Los Nogales school campus. The area is made-up of three different types of forests providing a diverse and fruitful eco-system for exploration and study.
It opened four years ago with three key objectives:
- To create a diverse bio-reserve that conserves and protects our natural environment.
- To facilitate our outdoor curriculum, offering an interesting and engaging way for students to study their subjects.
- To provide our students with more opportunities to be in contact with the natural world, and reap the health benefits that offers.
We think of Zasqua as a ‘living laboratory’, giving students a meaningful connection to their studies by enabling them to explore a variety of curriculum areas in an outdoor environment. It’s a place where students can also practise sustainability and see at first-hand the impact that their changes make.
Zasqua was the brainchild of the former head of school. The original intention was to develop a farm space within the school but as plans progressed, the idea of creating a bio-reserve to protect endangered species from traffickers was also mooted. However, after much consideration, it was felt that the scale of work required to achieve this would be too great (and it was enough of a challenge to create the bio-reserve in the first place!).
The school identified an unused area of grassland on the campus and then worked with the Development Office to generate $180,000 start-up funds to cover the cost of materials and labour (further funds were generated as the project developed). A variety of fundraising methods were used, however, the school’s existing ‘Nogales Day’ (an annual fundraising music and food festival) was particularly successful in enabling the school leadership to meet their fundraising target.
Once the legal and financial matters had been taken care of, efforts focused on the restoration of the land itself. Work began to restore the grassland to a wetland environment, which entailed the removal of truckloads of soil. At that point, we were faced with the choice of getting professional landscapers and gardeners in to populate our area with plants and wildlife, or allow the students to be a big part of this process. The former approach would be quicker, perhaps more cost-effective by utilising specialist skills – yet, we opted to invite the students to lead this aspect. Such involvement made the students deeply attached to the bio-reserve from the start and helped them appreciate how such a space could be used by the school. We were pleased to find that we did not really need high-tech skills to do the job: well-trained and energised students were more than capable of doing the landscaping work themselves. It was a longer process, and more challenging, but so much more rewarding. We did, however, refer to specialist support in the planning of the bio-reserve’s make-up, calling on the skills of a botanist and designer to create the vegetational structure that would attract and support wildlife.
The students began planting on Earth Day with children of all ages invited to participate. Even at this early stage, we were conscious of the importance of collecting data to allow the children to monitor the extent to which the trees and plants were thriving, and also to generate useful data points for classroom activity in subjects such as Maths.
Next, the school turned its attention to creating a composting site, enabling us to compost all organic waste from the cafeteria. We now collect about 700 tons of waste a week, which is used to fertilise the bio-reserve and campus itself. Such reinvestment avoids us paying an external company to handle this aspect of our waste, thus saving us money in the long-run.
As the bio-reserve began to take shape, there was also much work that needed to be undertaken within the school itself to encourage staff to develop activities outside the classroom, to ensure that the potential of the area would be fully utilised.
Zasqua was officially opened four years ago, presenting exciting learning opportunities for students in every part of the school. Each and every year group is set with a long-term task enabling them to feel a sense of responsibility to the bioreserve and understand its make-up.
Our Fourth graders, for example, were set the task of ensuring the bird population thrived at Zasqua. We invited an ornithologist into the school to speak to the students about birds’ habitats then set-up an overnight study camp where students tracked and recorded data on the bird population, which they then examined in their Science classes. Areas of exploration included the types of food that the birds enjoyed, allowing us to understand how we could best deliver this through our vegetation choices. Students were also involved in designing bird feeders, allowing them to exercise their skills in art and design.
Our Third Graders became gardeners, overseeing 500 square metres of land. They were involved in additional planting and also experiments to investigate how certain plants and species could best flourish.
In all aspects of work planning, we considered the type of activity very carefully ensuring it was age appropriate – challenging, yet appealing to the students. One such example is the work of our students to care for our rabbit population. Children from 4 to 6 years-old had the job of looking after the rabbits in the reserve, cleaning the area and providing fresh water and food. Their involvement in the regular care of the cuddly creatures provided a very tangible way for them to connect with nature. In contrast, our older children were given an insight into how we develop the rabbit population to provide a source of food. They learned how revenue from the sale of our rabbits was reinvested into the bioreserve and gained a greater understanding of food production methods.
The great advantage of delivering projects in Zasqua is the breadth of learning opportunities. For example, we ran a Corn Project which involved planting native seed crops in the bioreserve. We shared with the students ways of improving soil quality through organic means, using ancestral techniques. So, whilst learning about the science of promoting growth, and gaining lots of fresh air hours outdoors, they also learned a little of their culture and history too. The bioreserve has also been inspirational for our Art students offering easy access to stunning scenes of wildlife and landscapes, which have resulted in beautiful Impressionist paintings and creative installations. And in Maths, the students have been honing their skills in trigonometry as they have catalogued the dimensions of Zasqua’s landscape.
But the advantages of Zasqua go far beyond the academic: the whole school community gains greatly from this unique space. Zasqua has become a place for the community to gather; sometimes around particular work projects, such as our harvest, sometimes around specific lessons, offering a relaxed environment engendering open-minded talks and discussions. The site has also become a popular gathering point for formal school occasions, such as our students’ last day at school. Whether simply relaxing, climbing trees or enjoying a leisure pursuit such as canoeing, it offers all a place to have downtime with nature.
Agreeing priorities – In terms of programme challenges, one of the first was how to marry the needs of the restoration site with the needs of our school. It was important that we allowed the site to grow fruitfully, to let the grass grow long, to preserve the humidity and create the right climactic conditions. Yet the result was a rather wild and messy habitat that did not always look very pretty and fell far short of the manicured areas that schools are used to! Helping colleagues understand that this was necessary was instrumental in ensuring the site was given room to develop naturally.
Getting support from staff – Once the restoration site was established, a further challenge lay in encouraging teaching staff to utilise this great resource. For some, it was quite a big step to move away from the comfort of the classroom, particularly as some of our wetland areas are very challenging (the water in some parts is over 1 metre deep). There were concerns that teaching in these areas would be risky in more ways than one; without the structure of a classroom, teachers were worried that the class would become unruly and the children difficult to manage. To aid teachers in overcoming these concerns, I worked closely with them to highlight the benefits of using the restoration site for lessons but also looked at ways to address their concerns. We established a meeting area on the site so that when the class moves outdoors, students have a calm area where they can all congregate before embarking on their outdoor task or project. The meeting places gives a sense of structure to the teachers, who can brief the children in a calm and composed environment before they explore further afield.
The other important aspect in encouraging teachers to use Zasqua was to provide examples of the types of learning that could be undertaken. I collated a lot of data from the Zasqua environment and took it to the teachers showing them how such content could be used for their own lessons.
We have been tracking the environmental impact of Zasqua for the past two years and are delighted to have seen significant progress in the volume and quality of the flora and fauna in this area. The bioreserve also helps us reduce waste: we capture and reuse rain water, recycle plastic and reduce our garbage waste through our composting system. This is particularly important in an area of Colombia which has no formal recycling facilities at all.
We have also been impressed by how Zasqua has transformed learning in our school by providing students with the opportunity to have an idea and put it into action, and gain from the satisfaction that results from putting theory into practice. The experimental style of learning within Zasqua aids our students’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills, which they then apply to other areas in the curriculum.
It is also a very positive and nurturing experiential environment. The students’ proximity to nature aids their overall well-being, particularly those who suffer from attention deficit disorders and anxiety. I am particularly keen in the next few years to create a pedagogy to better capture and analyse the impact of this.
In the years ahead, we have ambitious plans to expand the depth and scale of data available on the environmental impact of Zasqua to aid universities and other institutions in tracking the make-up of our local environment.
We also want to explore ways to use Zasqua to teach in a more multi-disciplinary way, for example, to integrate maths and science projects rather than teaching them separately.
Finally, we hope to increase access to Zasqua, offering students from both private and public schools the opportunity to learn in the Zasqua environment. We have set-up a process whereby private schools pay a small administration fee to come to the site and use our teaching resources. The resulting funds are then used to subsidise public schools, for example, by offering to cover the cost of their transportation to visit our school.
- Don’t be afraid to dive in before all the elements are in place – As teachers, we often want to have everything planned before we get going but in the rush to do the ‘prep’, we can sometimes forget that there are learning opportunities for the students in the ‘process’ too. Don’t be discouraged if some of the things you establish at the start are not successful: they all aid our learning, and can be refined and improved along the way.
- Ensure the leadership fully understand the process – I would encourage you to have very open discussions with the leadership team about what is involved and keep communicating with them to show the progress of the site as it develops. They need to have a good understanding of what you are trying to achieve so that when critical decisions need to be made, it is easier to find common ground.
- Track data from day one – You will see the fruits of this later down the track. It aids you in so many ways, proving the benefits to the leadership team and creating content for teachers’ lessons.