By Anne Seebaldt
The Catholic Weekly
HOLLAND — When Ryer Appeldoorn was a middle school student at Corpus Christi School, he wanted to learn more about the outdoors.
And he wanted to learn it outdoors.
At the time, he had only one teacher who, one day each year, used the retention pond outside the school for exploration. The students would dip a bottle into water and examine the water … inside.
“I wanted some sort of place to spend an extended amount of time having lessons outside,” said Appeldoorn, now 19 and a fine arts student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Thus began what has become known as the “pond project” at the Holland school.
About nine years ago Appeldoorn and his parents, Lori and Dave, invited a few teachers to their home for dinner and a presentation about his idea for the school to have an outside learning space.
“The vision for an elaborate outdoor learning facility that Ryer shared that night truly inspired me,” said Abby Giroux, a middle school math and science teacher at the school and pond project coordinator. “It took a few years to present the idea to various school boards and authorities. Once we got the green light to proceed with plans we had to work to prioritize phases of the project and decide how to get started.”
“I came up with the idea, but my parents backed me on it,” Appeldoorn said. “Originally, I was just looking for an actual center outdoors, like a separate classroom.”
He put muscle behind his idea, too. He helped with the initial cleanup, then helped put some birdhouses by the pond.
Approximately six years ago, Giroux said, a committee was formed to begin the process of building an observation deck at the retention pond. The idea was to create a platform so students could get to the water to make observations and collect water samples.
Scott Bush, a local Boy Scout and Corpus Christi student, volunteered to take the deck design and construction on as his Eagle Scout Project. He and his father, John, designed and built the deck. The decking material was donated by a school family.
Once the observation deck was done, stepping stones for a path around the pond were crafted by a local Girl Scout Troop. An area resident cleared the land and installed a path and some new trees around the pond.
The students then planned and installed trail markers. These feature information about ecology and the numerous plants and animals that can be found around the pond.
“One of my teaching partners,” said Giroux, “also worked with students to build and install birdhouses and wood duck boxes around the pond.”
Eagle Scout Justin Reamer designed and built benches near the pond and Eagle Scout Alec Shrode installed a storage shed for observation and sampling supplies as well as some maintenance tools.
Giroux said she and the students worked together recently to build and maintain a small flower garden near the pond.
Giroux has had other interest in the pond.
“I was completing an ecology class for my master’s degree at the same time as the deck construction,” she said, “so I got permission from my instructor to write an ecology unit centered around pond exploration for the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade science classes at Corpus Christi. As part of that unit, students began working on story books and field guides about our pond.
“In the years since, students have completed various ecology research and art projects. We also have had a number of ecology speakers and authors come to the school to enhance our ecology studies.”
A new tradition at Corpus Christi, Science Day, is a direct result of the project. According to Giroux, it’s generally in the spring and “includes sharing of science projects and pond learning with families, local community members and/or our closest neighboring lakeshore Catholic school, St Mary School in Spring Lake.”
In addition, “throughout the school year, (pre-kindergarten through eighth grade) students visit the pond to observe, reflect, study and clean,” she said. “We have identified and photographed numerous plants and animals living at our pond. Most notably, we are able to observe muskrats living in our pond year-round and a pair of Canada geese and mallard ducks that return each year to nest.”
The project isn’t finished either. She said the future may hold raised-bed gardens for school community and classroom use.
“I would also like to get a statue of St. Francis and/or a creation mural installed near the pond,” said Giroux. “Ultimately, there is still the dream of a small building near the pond for onsite water analysis, etc.”
Regardless of what is pursued in the future, she said, the “pond project” has been and continues to be a wonderful addition to the school.
“We are so blessed to have such a beautiful space to interact with God’s creation,” Giroux said.†