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Case Study > Schaeffer Elementary: A Science and Nature Signature School


Schaeffer Elementary: A Science and Nature Signature School

Sarah Bright's 4th Grade Class

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At Schaeffer Elementary School, students are able to experience hands on learning with their eco-friendly pond and garden. The school’s program teaches students not only about science and the environment, but also develops reading, writing, math, and social studies skills. All classes are involved with the pond and garden. Students participate in activities like measuring the pond’s pH levels and are able to develop their writing skills by keeping nature journals. Parents also involve themselves by helping care for the pond and garden. This unique program teaches students how important our environment is and why we should take care of it.

Schaeffer Elementary School

A Visit With Sarah Bright's Fourth Graders

Take a Tour of Schaeffer Elementary

The Garden

The Pond

Community Involvement at Schaeffer Elementary

What Plants and Animals Live in the Six Habitats?

Grow Your Own Garden

Schaeffer Elementary School

A Brief History

Schaeffer Elementary School was established in the 1930’s. The school closed in 2001 for renovations and opened again in 2003. Approximately 400 children in grades K-5 attend the school, which has a staff of 40.

Schaeffer Elementary Curriculum

Schaeffer is known as an “Environmental Science Signature School,” which means that they teach their students about math, reading, writing, social studies, and science by focusing their curriculum around six outdoor habitats:

1. Pond
2. Garden
3. Forest edge
4. Forest
5. Open field
6. Stream

Schaeffer Elementary students are able to experience science and nature with five of the six habitats right on school property. For example, the fourth grade students observe each of these habitats and draw what they look like in their journals.

The fourth graders are put into groups to create murals of the six habitats. They research birds and mammals found in the habitats and draw them on the mural with the help of bird identification books and other picture books.

Students are assessed on the six habitats, and the mural project yields excellent results of the assessment.

The school began developing the signature curriculum in January 2002. A study entitled Closing the Achievement Gap discovered that schools that teach hands-on learning with the environment improved in many areas:

• Increase in standardized test scores in reading, writing, math, social studies, and science
• Increase in students interest and engagement in learning
• Increase in pride and ownership of accomplishments
• Decrease in misbehavior and classroom management problems

Here are some examples of how Schaeffer’s students are taught lessons in all subjects:

Math - Students are taught math lessons by figuring out the area of the total garden space at the school. This proves to be a difficult, but advanced math lesson.

Social Studies – Third and fourth grade students learn about the history of the plants in Schaeffer’s garden and pond. The third graders study German plants, while the fourth graders study plants native to our soil.

Reading and Writing – Observation skills are enhanced as each student keeps his or her own journal about the pond and garden. Students are given the freedom of writing, drawing, or composing poems to describe what they see.

Science – Students learn things like how to test the pH level of the pond, or how different plants survive during different seasons. They also see first-hand the process of how caterpillars become beautiful monarch butterflies.

These are only a few examples of how learning is enhanced by the pond and garden at Schaeffer Elementary. I was lucky to be able to visit Schaeffer Elementary to see just how valuable the pond and garden are to the students, staff, and community.

A Visit With Sarah Bright’s Fourth Graders

When I arrived at Schaeffer Elementary school on a beautiful mid-October day, I was directed to Mrs. Bright’s fourth grade classroom. I could feel the anticipation of the students as I walked in and was introduced.

After the class got settled down, Mrs. Bright began by asking her fourth graders to close their eyes. She asked them to think about what the pond and garden looked like at the start of the school year. She reminded her students of the changing seasons and asked them to observe what changes had taken place since their last outing.

The first stop was at the garden. Mrs. Bright asked her students if they remembered looking under rocks at the beginning of the school year. She then told her students to go to the same rock and take note of the different objects that were under the rock that were not there the first time.

I asked a few students what they had discovered under their rocks. Julia told me that the first time she lifted her rock there were bugs, but this time, there was nothing. Alyssa noted that there were baby grubs and ants under her rock and that now there were only roots.

As I walked around the garden, I observed how each student spread out in his or her own little area to record their observations in their journals. Some students gathered around a table and shared their journal entries with me, while others sprawled out on the ground and seemed to be in their own little world as they drew pictures and wrote descriptions.

Mrs. Bright called a few students over when she discovered an empty box that was left behind by the second graders. The box contained the chrysalis of a monarch butterfly that never made it out. Mrs. Bright then moved on to pick a flower from the garden and let some of her students smell it. She told her students to finish up their journal entries so that they can walk over to the pond.

Arriving at the pond, the students spread themselves out again to their favorite spots where they observed and noted changes in the pond. Three boys shared a bench as they recorded in their journals, while other students gathered around a table. The students pictured below were very eager to share their journals with me.

Mrs. Bright walked around the pond and picked some milkweed. She caught the attention of some of her students and taught them about milkweed and how its seeds can be blown off and spread much like those of a dandelion. The students picked the milkweed and began spreading the seeds around.

I asked a student named Olivia what she liked observing better, the pond or the garden. “The pond,” she replied, “because there is more to observe.”

After rounding up the students, Mrs. Bright led her fourth graders back to their classroom. She asked her students to share the changes that they noticed in both the pond and the garden.

Some students noted that some of the plants in the garden had begun to turn brown and wilt. Another student mentioned how the marigolds were beginning to bloom. Other students shared that there were leaves beginning to fall off of the trees and that berries were coming out on the bushes. Mrs. Bright asked what the berries were for. Her students answered that they were food for the animals in the winter. She pointed out to her students that the more berries on the bushes, the harsher the winter would be.

The conversation then turned to observations that were noted about the pond. Students mentioned that the reeds were dying and turning brown. A student named Owen talked about spreading the seeds of the milkweed. Others noted that the flowers on the lily pads were gone. Other students took notice that chrysanthemums were blooming and the grass had grown taller.

After talking about the changes in the pond and garden, the fourth graders were taken off to gym class and I was able to ask Mrs. Bright some questions. She showed me around the school and mentioned about how the school was heated and cooled using geothermal energy and how the garden shed was powered by solar energy.

I left Schaeffer Elementary in such a good mood. I felt refreshed. It was so nice to see how the school is using a hands-on learning experience to enhance the students’ educations. Below is some information about how the school building is heated, and how the school uses solar energy.

Schaeffer Elementary Going Green

Along with the recycling program, the school uses an environmentally friendly way of heating and cooling the building, and also uses solar energy to light the garden shed.

Geothermal Heating and Cooling

Geothermal energy is used to cool Schaeffer Elementary on warm days, and heat it during the cold winter months.

The building is cooled when the system uses a pump that takes the earth’s heat and cools it. In the winter, the earth’s heat is used to warm the building.

There are two types of geothermal pumps: open-loop and closed-loop. An open-loop pump uses groundwater from a well and turns it into heat with a heat pump. The water is then drained into a body of water, a drainfield, or is put back into a discharge well.

A closed-loop system is what Schaeffer Elementary uses, and it is the more common of the two. This closed-loop system is a continuous transfer of heat that circulates throughout the building.

This type of heating and cooling system is very environmentally friendly because energy use is very minimal. Geothermal systems are very expensive to install, however they greatly reduce energy and maintenance costs.

Another benefit of the geothermal system is an improvement of air quality. The system produces zero indoor air pollutants because no products of combustion are used by the pump.

A company that installs geothermal cooling and heating systems provides frequently asked questions on their website. Click here to learn answers to questions that you may have.

Solar Panels

Outside, in the back of Schaeffer Elementary, one will find a tiny little shed. This is where the gardening tools can be found. Solar panels line the roof of the shed, which help provide electricity on the inside.

The school utilizes this solar panel shed as one more way to help the environment and be more energy efficient. Solar panels take the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity. The electricity is stored in batteries until it is needed. says that “enough solar radiation strikes the earth every day to meet earth’s energy needs for an entire year.”

Click here for a great link where kids can learn more about solar energy.

Take a Tour of Schaeffer Elementary


Walking into the school, one is greeted with pictures of plants and animals found in the habitats that students learn about. One section of the hallway is filled with pictures taken right from the school’s pond and garden. There is a display of different species of butterflies. A once-live bird found by one of the faculty members sits perched on a branch overlooking the hallway.

The library is complete with leaf printed carpet and countertops, as well as a large collection of science and nature books. The cafeteria encourages students to be environmentally friendly with recycling bins placed by the trash cans.

The classrooms are also filled with nature pictures and science facts. In the corner of Mrs. Bright’s 4th grade classroom, an empty cage sits that once held the cocoon of a monarch butterfly.


To the left of the school, one will find Schaeffer Elementary’s beautiful garden. A sign from Schoolyard Habitats is posted at the garden’s entrance and states, “by providing wildlife with food, water, cover, and places to raise young, these grounds offer outdoor learning opportunities for students and the entire community.”

The pond can be found on the other side of the school. A sidewalk allows students to walk all the way around the pond in order to take in every angle of the habitat.

A small pool of water flows down a waterfall and into the large area of the pond. Lily pads can be seen floating on top of the pond, while goldfish can be found swimming around in the water.

In the back of the school, one will find a large open area where students have gym class and recess. This is also one of the six habitats that students learn about during the school year. The open field leads to the forest’s edge, which then leads into the forest, which are two more habitats that students discuss and interact with.

The Garden

The entrance to the garden is a pathway of pretty colored stepping stones that lead under an archway. Inside the garden are several areas where the students observe the garden and learn about all of the plants and animals that inhibit it. There is a table area for students to sit at and write in or draw pictures in their daily journals. Some students prefer to describe what the garden looks like with their words, while others choose to use colored pencils and crayons to draw beautiful pictures of the garden.

The garden is a great place for students to learn hands-on and develop many necessary skills. Observation is a key skill; students observe how the garden grows and changes. Each grade has an area of the garden to take care of and learn about.

First Grade

First graders at Schaeffer Elementary learn to identify plants and trees that are named after animals. Some of the plants that the first graders take care of are:

• Elephant Ear
• Pussy Willow
• Snap Dragon
• Hens and Chicks
• Cat Mint
• Dog Wood
• Cardinal Flower

Second Grade

Second graders are in charge of the bird and butterfly gardens. The butterfly garden includes plants that attract the butterflies, including the butterfly bush, purple cone flowers, daisies and lilies. The bird garden includes bird houses, a bird bath, as well as bird feeders. There are also winterberry bushes and other plants that birds feed off of.

Third Grade

Third graders learn about German ancestry in their gardens, which are four raised bed gardens. These gardens are called “German four squares.” Students learn about the types of plants that would be found in a German garden in the 1700-1800s such as beans, peas, carrots, onions, squash and beets.

Fourth Grade

The fourth grade has a garden filled with native plants. The plants in this garden are those that were around before the colonists settled. The native plants allow other birds and animals to feed on them. These plants include:

• Winterberry
• Red Chokeberry
• Bee Balm
• Milkweed
• Bluegrass

Pictured below are some of the berries that are grown in Schaeffer's garden.

Kindergarten and fifth grade are also involved in taking care of the garden. Kindergarten students plant pumpkins and sunflowers, while the fifth grade classes help weed, water, and take care of all of the plants in the garden.

Click on the link at the top right of this page to see a short slideshow with pictures from each grade's garden.

Garden Club

Garden club is held once a week after school is out, weather permitting. Students in garden club assist with planting, weeding, and watering the garden. This is a great extra-curricular activity for young students to become involved in because they learn even more about caring for the plants and animals that live in the garden.

The Pond

On the side opposite of Schaeffer’s garden, the pond can be found. The pond is 4,438 square feet and holds about 8,000 gallons of water. A small pool of water near the entrance of the pond area flows down a waterfall and into the main area of the pond. A sidewalk surrounds the pond so that students are free to walk all the way around in order to make observations. Plants and shrubbery also surround the pond.

Students in all grades write and draw in their journals what they see when they observe the pond. The younger students tend to draw pictures and label them, while the older students draw and write paragraphs or even poems about the pond.

Science experiments and projects are conducted with the help of the pond. The fourth graders test the pH levels of the pond, and also test for phosphates, nitrates and turbidity in the pond. This allows the students to practice for when they take a trip to local streams and perform the same procedures.

Many plants and animals can be found in and around the pond:

• Ducks
• Squirrels
• Raccoons
• Snakes
• Rabbits
• Frogs
• Birds
• Goldfish
• Butterflies
• Lily Pads
• Milkweed

If you look closely at the picture below, you can see some of the goldfish that the students pointed out to me when we visited the pond.

The pond can also be observed by students from inside the building. There is a large window overlooking the pond so that students walking the hallways can view it at any time during the day.

Community Involvement at Schaeffer Elementary

Along with the teachers and students, parents and community members are actively involved in caring for the pond and garden. After the school’s renovation, parents of the students helped plan and plant the current garden.

Parents and community members assist in the up-keep of the garden. According to Schaeffer Elementary’s website, these volunteers prepare the flower beds, pull weeds, mow the grass, and water the plants. Some also choose to donate money in order to maintain the garden.

Without the help of these wonderful volunteers, it would be much harder to maintain the garden. Schaeffer Elementary appreciates the time and effort put in.

For more information about Schaeffer Elementary, click here to visit the website.

What Plants and Animals Live in the Six Habitats?

Here is a chance for you to learn about some of the plants and animals that Schaeffer Elementary students study when they review the six habitats. To remind you, the six habitats are:

1. Garden
2. Pond
3. Forest Edge
4. Forest
5. Open Field
6. Stream

Elements of a Northeast Garden Habitat

There are a variety of garden habitats that one may choose to plant in. Depending on the climate and area where the garden is located depends on which plants and animals survive best. Lancaster is located in the Northeast Region, which experiences cold winters, mild springs, and sometimes hot and humid summers.

Some popular flowers that will survive in a northeastern garden are:

• Roses
• Sunflowers
• Marigolds
• Snap Dragons
• Pansies
• Tulips
• Wildflowers

Common vegetables that are planted in Pennsylvania gardens are:

• Tomatoes
• Onions
• Carrots
• Squash
• Corn
• Peppers
• Radishes

It is important to note for beginning gardeners to do research on how to care for the plants you wish to put in your garden. Some bulb plants like tulips must be planted in the fall, while plants like snap dragons or vegetables like tomatoes are planted in the spring. Any seed packet will give information on when and where to plant, and how to care for your plants.

A variety of small animals and insects inhibit a garden including:

• Butterflies
• Bumble Bees
• Ants
• Spiders
• Rabbits
• Squirrels
• Birds

Elements of a Pond Habitat

A pond habitat is made up of microbes, plants, animals, and abiotic elements.

Microbes include bacteria, diatoms, and microscopic animals that are found in the pond water and mud. These microbes are classified as producers, consumers, and decomposers.

• Producers use the sunlight to make food for themselves and other living things in the pond. They also produce oxygen.
• Consumers are the microscopic animals that eat algae and other microbes. These consumers help clear up the cloudy pond water. • Decomposers break down organic matter into nutrients for plants, and also for other pond organisms to feed on.

Some plants that are found in the pond are rootless, free floating shelters for the animals living in it. The plants are also a large source of oxygen. There are also plants found on the outskirts of the pond, which provide food to insects and birds near the pond.

Animals found in the pond are fish, insects, and amphibians. These animals feed on algae and plants. The animals’ waste provides nutrients to the plants that they eat.

Abiotic elements are non-living factors that contribute to the pond. Examples of abiotic elements are the water, sun, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. These elements are very important components in order for the pond life to survive. Without these elements, there would not be a pond habitat.

For more information, visit to learn about gardening with children.

Elements of a Pennsylvania Forest Edge Habitat

A forest edge is the area bordering the actual forest. A forest edge is approximately a 300 ft. perimeter around a forest.

Some animals that live in the forest edge are:

• Raccoons
• Mice
• Chipmunks
• Birds
• Salamanders

Elements of a Pennsylvania Forest Habitat

A forest habitat is the core part of the forest. The forest is divided into three parts:

1. Forest Floor – contains fertile soil, dead plants and animals, and small plants and wildflowers
2. Understory – also known as the shrub layer, contains small trees and shrubs
3. Canopy – the leaves and branches of trees that are dominate in the forest

Many animals living in the core of the forest need a large area to survive. Some of these animals include:

• Bobcats
• Flying Squirrels
• Bears
• Wood rats
• Deer
• Grouse
• Turkey
• Foxes
• Hawks
• Woodpeckers
• Cardinals

A wide variety of plants also grow in the forest habitat. Some plants found in Pennsylvania forest habitats are:

• Exotic Plants
• Wildflowers
• Mosses
• Ferns
• Shrubs
• Maple, Oak, Birch, and Pine Trees

Elements of a Pennsylvania Open Field Habitat

An open field habitat is mainly grassland, with little or no trees. Some types of plants and grasses that can be found in an open field habitat are:

• Purple Needle grass
• Blue Grama
• Buffalo Grass
• Galleta
• Blazing Star
• Coneflowers
• Goldenrods
• Sunflowers
• Clovers
• Psoraleas
• Wild Indigos

Animals that live in an open field habitat are not very diverse, however, there is plenty of wildlife including:

• Bison
• Pronghorn
• Wolves
• Coyotes
• Foxes
• Badgers
• Ferrets
• Grouse
• Meadowlarks
• Quails
• Sparrows
• Hawks
• Owls

Elements of a Pennsylvania Stream Habitat

Pennsylvania has eight major river basins, which network about 85,000 miles of streams throughout the state. Bass and Trout can be found in these streams and are sought by fisherman.

Hemlock trees can be found lining the streams. These trees provide shade for the wildlife that lives in the stream habitats. Stream habitats also provide water for mammals and birds to drink and bathe in.

Other species that are found living in Pennsylvania stream habitats are:

• Salamanders
• Fish
• Aquatic Insects
• Frogs

For more information about Pennsylvania's wildlife, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website.

Grow Your Own Garden

There are a variety of different gardens that individuals enjoy. Here are some tips for growing a vegetable, native, or butterfly garden.

Vegetable Garden

Vegetable gardens are generally fun and easy to grow. It is rewarding when your vegetables are ripe and you have your first taste of them. Here are some key steps in growing a vegetable garden.

1. Find a good amount of space - A 16x20 ft. area is ideal to feed families of three or four. If you do not have that kind of space, or if you do not wish to have such a large garden as a beginner, you can also grow vegetables in plastic containers.

2. Plan – Decide which vegetables you wish to grow in your garden. Think about what you and your family like to eat, and make a list according to your preferences. Some vegetables you may want to think about growing are:

• Beets
• Carrots
• Lettuce
• Radishes
• Squash
• Tomatoes
• Cucumbers
• Asparagus
• Onions

3. Climate - Make sure the vegetables you choose are capable of growing in the environment or climate that you live in.

4. Look for the perfect spot - Vegetables need an adequate amount of sunlight in order to grow. Also, it is a good idea to plant around a structure that would help prevent wind damage.

5. Prepare your soil - Once you have found a good spot, clear out weeds, rocks, sticks, debris, etc.

6. Plant – It is best to plant the tallest plants at the back of the garden. Plant the rows 2-3 feet apart. Different crops are planted at different times. Read the instructions on the seed packets for when to plant them and how to care for them. A vegetable garden needs watered at least once a week, but it needs more water during a hot and dry spell.

7. Enjoy – After your vegetables are ripe, pick them frequently in order for more to grow. Pick up a new cookbook for some new ideas on how to add your vegetables to your recipes!

See and Lowe's Creative Ideas website for more tips!

Native Garden

Growing native plants means that you will be growing plants that adapt best to the environment you live in. Some factors to consider are the weather, temperature, light, soil, and animal life.

Growing a native garden is great because native plants are generally the easiest to care for. Better Homes and Gardens website gives a list of the top 15 native plants in the northeast region:

1. Wild Anemone
2. Yellow Lady’s-Slipper Orchid
3. Carolina Lupine
4. Merrybells
5. Virgin’s Bower
6. Foamflower
7. Maidenhair Fern
8. Jacob’s Ladder
9. Trillium
10. Woodland Iris
11. American Coral Bells
12. Eastern Bluestar
13. Wild Ginger
14. Swamp Milkweed
15. Culver’s Root

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources encourages Pennsylvanians to protect native plants and minimize destruction of their habitats. Their website says that landscaping with native plants is great because the plants will adapt well to their environment.

If you are thinking about planting a native garden, most retail nurseries provide requested native plants to gardeners. It is important that you do not take native plants from the wild. Many native plants do not survive a transplant, and it can hurt the area where the plants were taken from.

For more information, visit Better Homes and Gardens' website or The Pennsylvania DCNR's page about native plants.

Butterfly Garden

There are a variety of plants that attract different types of butterflies. In order to help the butterfly population grow in your area, two types of plants are needed.

1. Nectar Plants – Feed adult butterflies and give them energy
2. Caterpillar Food Plants – Feed the caterpillars

Butterfly plants can be found wherever regular seed packets are found. The packets will let you know which ones attract butterflies. Some plants thrive better under certain climates.

Nectar plants that will flourish best in the Lancaster or Southeastern Pennsylvania are:

• Butterfly Bush
• Milkweed
• Mountain Mints
• Joe-pye-weed
• Verbena
• Asters
• Zinnias

Nectar plants that WILL NOT do well in Southeastern Pennsylvania’s climate are Cosmos, Latana, and Porterweed.

Caterpillar food plants that do well in Southeastern Pennsylvania are:

• Fennel
• Common Milkweed
• Swamp Milkweed
• Stinging Nettle

Here are some important things to think about when planning your butterfly garden:

1. Diversity - Plants that attract butterflies can be shrubs, trees, perennials, and vines. It is best to have a variety of plants so that more butterflies will be attracted to your garden. A diverse butterfly garden also invites butterflies to stay longer, because the plants bloom at different times.

2. Shelter – Shrubs and trees provide the best shelter for butterflies to hide from the wind, or from night time predators.

3. Sunlight – It is important to allow sun to shine through because butterflies are cold blooded and the sunlight keeps them warm.

For more information about butterfly gardens, visit


A big thank you to Schaeffer Elementary School and Sarah Bright and her fourth grade class for allowing me to learn about their pond and garden!















This site was created by Amanda Waclawski (contact) who is a student at Millersville University of Pennsylvania

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