The "Dome" Learning Lab

Caring for Creation

Environmental Education at the Academy of Notre Dame Tyngsboro

By Jennifer Klein, Academy of Notre Dame Tyngsboro

This article initially appeared in the inaugural issue of our magazine, 'Sowing Goodness.' The full issue is available here.

In the fall of 2021, after months of research, discussion, and curriculum planning by the Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts (NDA Tyngsboro) multidisciplinary, volunteer STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) Team, a comprehensive environmental education program was developed, including the construction of a donor-funded geodome on their beautiful 200-acre wooded campus. Now, a year of academic programming has been completed and a key component of their bold five-year strategic plan, Inspiring Excellence, has been met.

Guided by their strategic plan, the new environmental education curriculum aligns with the Hallmarks of a Notre Dame Learning Community and Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, related to care for our common home. The “Dome,” as it is affectionately called, is an outdoor greenhouse and learning lab that serves all ages, Pre-K through Grade 12, at this SNDdeN school in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts. NDA Tyngsboro chose to enhance its environmental education programs for various reasons, including a strong institutional commitment to creating healthier and more civically engaged communities and providing its students with the physical and psychological benefits afforded by spending time in nature. Most notably, more than 50% of their high school graduates now go on to pursue STEAM majors in college, so NDA understood the need to respond to their students’ changing interests and the needs of the time.

The Geodome at Notre Dame Tyngsboro

“As a school, we believe that these living classrooms instill a greater sense of respect for our environment and the earth in future generations,” shared Dr. Vittoria Pacifico, Head of School. “Environmental education is rooted in the belief that humans can and should live in harmony with nature. It truly has the power to transform lives and society. We feel honored to be able to give this gift to our students.”

The geodome provides hands-on learning opportunities, educates students about how to care for our environment, and makes environmental studies come alive. This unique experience, the first of its kind in their region of Massachusetts, will have an impact on future scientists, engineers, educators, and business leaders.

Inside the geodome, skylights self-regulate using bees’ wax and air temperature, fans operate using solar panels, and the 3,000-gallon fish tank and raised garden beds work together using thermodynamics to regulate heat and cold. Nearby, students grow seasonal flowers and produce in the hoop house, tap the on-site maple sugar trees to taste-test homemade maple syrup and enjoy an outdoor classroom space with an obstacle course and puppet theater. A pollinator garden will soon be developed with native plants and flowers, which is part of NDA Tyngsboro’s commitment to the larger mission of the Global Climate Forum with SNDdeN schools across the world.

All programming in the geodome and indoor Environmental Learning Lab is designed to provide age appropriate, sequential experiences for students, with a deliberate focus on critical thinking and higher-level problem-solving. Applications this year included sound mapping and outdoor reflection in middle school theology classes, watershed games and lessons for a fourth-grade class, a nature walk for preschoolers, and a guest alumna speaker for the upper school science club who shared her career in environmental economics. A student who participated in sound-mapping and outdoor reflection shared, “I heard a lot of noises: birds chirping in the trees, a wasp flying past my ear, the sounds of the leaves touching each other, wind hitting the trees, a chainsaw cutting metal, the crunch of small sticks, and little children playfully talking. I feel peace and calm … it felt like all the hate, bullying, and all the other bad things people have done have never happened.”

Learners from all grade levels have had an opportunity to transport soil, grow plants, and taste-test NDA-grown produce such as tomatoes, basil, garlic, kale, cabbage, onions, and more. Currently, the dome is being incorporated into the summer camp program. “Our Dome serves as a hub for discovery and activity. Only in the first year of inception, the possibilities for future activities are truly endless. It provides this special learning community so much opportunity,” said Alex Webb, Environmental Education and Enrichment Coordinator. This transformative educational experience at NDA Tyngsboro is a beacon of hope for the future of today’s students and our world.

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