The Living Classroom

There’s a new hang-out on campus … for spotted salamanders, spadefoot toads, butterflies, birds and plenty of other creatures.

Known on campus as “The Living Classroom,” it’s a vernal pool in woods behind the school for the study of endangered species, wildlife management, wetland health, and more. The pool was created in late March by students, teachers, staff, and environmental professionals.

The Living Classroom, part of the Falmouth Academy Science, Engineering and Technology Scholars (FASETS) program, was built in collaboration with Mass Audubon and the Center for Wetland and Stream Restoration. The Town of Falmouth Conservation Commission provided invaluable assistance in site selection and surveying, notes FASETS coordinator and science teacher Jill Reves.

Work began the morning of March 31 with the arrival of an enormous excavator to dig a 40-foot-diameter depression – an effort slowed on occasion by some Volkswagen-sized boulders, courtesy of the glacier period.

Next came installation of a biological-grade aquarium liner and pads, requiring the strength of more than two dozen students and teachers. Soil restoration followed, along with the placement of a few fallen trees and limbs to create nesting and landing spaces for a variety of critters.

Throughout the day, students and teachers came to the site to help with construction – clearing rocks, lopping tree roots, placing the liner, and spreading straw around the perimeter to reduce erosion – all the while guided, and educated, by Mass Audubon sanctuary director Ian Ives and wildlife biologist and wetlands consultant Tom Biebighauser of Kentucky. FA senior Grant Doney documented the effort on video; local media outlets dispatched staff to capture the action for their newspapers and websites.

Twelve hours later, the vernal pool was complete and ready for spring rains (and bizarre April snowstorms) to fill it. The pool will be left to settle until fall, “and then,” says Ms. Reves, “we’ll see what creatures come.”

Spotted salamanders and other endangered species are expected to come find this new home. Plans call for the installation of bat boxes as well.

The Living Classroom is made possible by the FASETS program, launched in 2013 with financial support from private donors and the Edward E. Ford Foundation. In addition to project costs, funding supports the purchase of an array of gear and equipment for students to use, including water quality monitors, tree tagging supplies, cameras, game-cams, fly nets, and even knee boots for wet weather excursions.

“This is an opportunity to provide a habitat for native species in an environment that enables students to study, sample, sketch, and reflect,” says Head of School Stephen Duffy. “Between The Living Classroom and the existing protected cedar swamp nearby, students will deepen their understanding of the variety and importance of wetlands and the fragile ecosystems they support. We can’t wait to get outdoors!”

Ms. Reves and her Science Department colleagues are developing activities to incorporate The Living Classroom into their curriculum, “and while science is the larger part of what will be going on there, it will be a place for all departments to visit, for photography, language lessons, creative writing, and much more,” she says.

“Wetlands provide a habitat for endangered species,” says Ms. Reves, “and they also provide a beautiful place for people to visit and observe small and precious things that might normally go unnoticed.”