SKOWHEGAN — The Freedom Fields and Trails at the Marti Stevens Learning Center were transformed into a 10-acre outdoor classroom Wednesday for about 100 students from the middle school and from the learning center itself.

It was a forest field day for students in the middle school’s Aroostook Team who, despite a slight spring chill in the air, enjoyed learning about the sights, sounds and smells of the Maine woods — right in their own backyard. Activities in eight separate study stations included instruction in forestry, wildlife, biology, ecology and invasive species, with presenters spread out through the woods and students rotating through the stations, said Marti Stevens teacher Tristen Hinkle.

The excursion was organized by high school seniors at Marti Stevens, the Skowhegan-based SAD 54 district’s alternative high school, who invited the team of about 100 middle schoolers to join them. It was the first time such an event has happened, and middle school principal Zachary Longyear said the event was “tremendously successful.”

Longyear said the outdoor experience is an example of the alternative school’s hands-on approach to teaching and learning and a way to connect the two schools in a common theme.

“It was a way to build community between schools and build community with bringing the local presenters from all around the state of Maine to teach the students, as well,” Tristen Hinckle said.

Students learned about garlic mustard, Oriental bittersweet and a strain of honeysuckle, all of which are invasive species to Maine. They learned the basics of trees that grow in the state, 89 percent of which is covered in trees.

“We’ve been working with the state forester to work on a management plan for this forest,” Hinkle said along the trail where students have spread wood chips. “We’re looking at what we might want to harvest out of here to get some of the trees back and what we might do about managing the invasives as well.”

Hinkle said they began managing the woods at the Learning Center on U.S. Route 2 across from the district’s high school and middle school campus and administrative offices about three years ago after receiving a grant from State Farm Insurance to build a geodesic dome where flowers, vegetables and seedlings are grown behind the alternative high school. The land slopes down to a picnic area on the Kennebec River. Along the way are a ropes course with a tire swing and a dock for kayaks and the four new Old Town canoes the program recently obtained.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property that we’re trying to make the public aware that it’s out here and that people can use,” Hinkle said. “Today is a nice opportunity to get the kids out here and working and have outdoor space where we can do some forestry components and build up what we do in the classroom.”

At one station on tree identification, natural science educator Kevin Doran, of the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and Maine Forest Service, told students there are about 18 million acres of forest in Maine, using the size of one football field — about one acre — for comparison. He told students that the study of forestry includes math and science to unlock the mysteries of the Maine woods.

“We are number one — by state — of forest cover,” Doran told a group of about 13 students. “By percentage, we’re number one.”

Sam Scott, an eighth-grader from Skowhegan, said he learned that white pine trees have five needles, as opposed to red pine, which has only two needles.

“It’s interesting and I’m involved in it,” he said standing beside a tall white pine — the Maine state tree. “I learned that you know it’s a white pine because it has five needles and you spell it — white — five letters, five needles.”

Another student, Andre Houghton, an eighth-grader from Canaan, said he liked the outing because he enjoys being out in the woods.

“I learned stuff about trees that I didn’t know before,” he said. “I like hunting and fishing, so I like to be out in the woods.”

Kaitlyn Baker, an eighth-grader from Skowhegan, said she also learned things about the Maine woods that she didn’t know before.

“I think it’s cool how many different trees are in Maine,” she said. “And how many acres — 18 million — there are in Maine. I thought there was much more.”

The Marti Stevens Learning Center started in downtown Skowhegan as the Cross Roads Learning Center, a school and home for teen mothers, which was incorporated into the school district in 1987. The school moved to its present location in 2002 with Barry Sites the first principal, who is still there.

The school was founded by Marti Stevens, a New York City actress who came to Maine to start a teaching career. When Stevens died in 1993, the school was renamed in her honor.

“Today was a way to get some community involvement,” Hinkle said. “We’re trying to get the kids out and get our kids to be able to take that next step and take home what they’ve learned. We have biologists from all around the area. We have conservationists. We have people from Somerset Woods, from the state of Maine, a couple of different foresters and wildlife biologists.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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