Forming the Future: Academy of Notre Dame promotes 'Laudato si'' through environmental learning spaces

TYNGSBORO -- Located on over 200 acres of land, the Academy of Notre Dame (NDA) is well situated to use the natural environment in its academic subjects. Now, it can do even more to learn about caring for creation, thanks to the addition of a geodome on the campus and the transformation of one classroom into an environmental learning lab.

Kelley Rice, the school's director of communications, said that NDA is focused on hands-on learning. As a result, many students develop a passion for their subjects.

"It's one thing if you sit in a classroom and you talk about plants or sustainability. It's a very different passion and excitement when you are taking home a tree for Arbor Day or bringing your mom something for Mother's Day," Rice said on Nov. 18.

Half of NDA's graduates go on to study subjects related to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). Recognizing that this is the fastest-growing job sector, the faculty wanted to find ways to expand their offerings.

Part of NDA's strategic plan for 2020-2024 is to develop and implement a STEAM program for all grades, from pre-K through grade 12, to include environmental sciences and sustainability. A team of teachers, including Bryan Conant, the school's director of grounds, brainstormed and researched ideas for how to do this.

Conant said that the geodome appealed to them because students would be able to use it during the cold winter months, and it would offer "the best interaction" for all students. He said agriculture is "very important" to him, and that he sees "such a disconnect" between society and the environment.

"I think it's very important to be able to have some sense of sustainability by having your own garden, by producing your own food. And I thought that this really gave us an opportunity, (even) during the winter, to have kids be able to come in here and see something actively growing," he said.

Led in large part by Conant, the STEAM team presented their ideas for the geodome and environmental learning lab to Head of School Vittoria Pacifico. Both projects were made possible through funding from donors.

"We're really answering the call of Pope Francis to support 'Laudato si'," Pacifico said, referring to Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment.

Additionally, this month the school received a $1 million grant to implement Pope Francis' Laudato Si Action Platform.

"We're very excited about that, and it's really moving our school forward," Pacifico said.

The geodome, measuring 42 feet in diameter and over 16 feet in height, was ordered from Growing Spaces in Colorado and was assembled in October. Students were able to observe the building process from start to finish, with some teachers bringing their classes to watch and talk to the construction workers. Students also helped carry in the soil for the plant beds, which served as the cross country team's workout at one point.

The geodome's solar panels power a fish tank, which holds 16 goldfish and 3,000 gallons of water. The tank absorbs heat from the morning sun and releases it later in the day. Conant noted that the geodome has no carbon footprint, unlike greenhouses where some of his colleagues work that require unsustainable amounts of resources.

"In trying to fight climate change, we all need to think about that word 'sustainability' and teach that to future generations," he said.

The garden beds are low enough that pre-K students as young as three or four years old can see and access them.

"Everybody can be part of that, and that was an important factor," Dr. James Flynn, NDA's principal and dean of STEAM, told The Pilot.

To learn about where food comes from, some of the younger grades have grown plants from seedlings, starting with pots on a windowsill and later transferring them to the lab or the geodome.

"This is just a way to have students become more environmentally literate and more aware of their environment," Flynn said.

While they present opportunities for chemistry and other kinds of experiments, the new spaces are not only used in science classes. The middle school garden club utilizes the lab, and NDA has also partnered with local organizations, such as Mass Audubon, allowing them to use the lab and geodome.

Teachers have found ways to incorporate the new facilities into other subjects as well. First graders had a literacy project writing letters to the new goldfish. A social studies class planted beans and Swiss chard while learning about agriculture in early civilizations. The eighth grade recently had a retreat in which they planted and decorated pots of mint, which they will donate to nursing homes. The school will also hold professional development about how teachers can further utilize the geodome and lab.

Flynn said they do not know the "end result" and are "learning as we go." They might donate the food they grow to a local food bank. They might add other features around the geodome, such as berry bushes or picnic tables. They intend to plant a fig tree inside the dome, and Pacifico hopes to arrange a blessing with the board and families.

"We're proud of the programming we have, and we're looking at ways of enhancing what we already do. The geodome definitely gives us a leg up in ways to have kids enrich their experiences," Flynn said.