Norfolk Collegiate's outdoor learning lab

Engaged learning took a leap forward with Norfolk Collegiate's Outdoor Learning Lab. Through the generous support of parents Taylor ’00 and Emily Franklin, the lower school’s interior courtyard area was converted into a living outdoor lab to enhance learning across the curriculum. The lab features four raised vegetable beds, a flower garden, greenhouse and chicken coop with five Buff Orpington hens and an educational koi pond. 

It allows our faculty to extend classroom lessons outdoors and bring the subject matter to life by providing our students with the opportunity to study in a non-traditional environment and to participate in meaningful experiences while planting, maintaining and harvesting the bounty of the beds. 

The student-driven, farm-to-table project was made possible due to a generous donation from the Franklin family. 

“We also are very grateful to the Franklin family for the overwhelmingly generous donation that has made this project a possibility,” said Nicole Pellegrino, director of development. “The Outdoor Learning Lab will be donor-funded and the ongoing maintenance will be supported through our donors and community partnerships.”


About the Outdoor Learning Lab 

Over several months, lower school Science Teacher Melissa Economou brainstormed, planned and measured with the students to bring the project to fruition in 2016. Thanks to the collaborative efforts, and the muscle of dedicated faculty and staff and volunteers, a concept was developed to allow for learning in a unique manner through the learning lab. 

“Students were proposed with the idea of doing something with the courtyard space that would allow all students the ability to learn and participate,” said Economou. “They generated multiple ideas and then researched the viability and costs associated with each.” 


The Oak Roost

Based on the available space, students decided to use one space for hens. The Oak Roost, which was named by the students, houses five Buff Orpington hens in a sandy-floored, fenced-in area of approximately 380 square feet and a 12’x4’ cedar coop. Under faculty supervision, students are responsible for feeding, gathering eggs and maintaining the hens. To demonstrate the life cycle of our hens, Economou and her students hatched several hens, who lived in the school's science room until May 12, 2016, when they were strong enough to live in the outdoor roost.   

“Given proper care and diet, the hens should each produce one egg about every 26 hours,” said Economou.


Vegetable Garden Area

Students grow herbs and vegetables for use in the school’s dining hall and for the FoodBank of South Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore via four 4’x 8’ raised beds. They utilize the square-foot gardening method, which divides the bed into square feet, each foot being used for growing a different herb or vegetable. For example, one square foot would produce 16 carrots, or 9 bush beans, or four heads of lettuce or one pepper plant. Students will have 128 squares to plan, seed, grow and harvest. In the spirit of philanthropy, they also donate the eggs and a portion of the produce to the Foodbank of South Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore.

“Each bed is fully irrigated with a drip irrigation system,” said Economou. “This also allows for year-round crop rotation and cultivation.”

Several local Master Gardeners assisted Economou and the students with the placement of the beds to ensure proper soil and lighting are available to sustain the crops. No pesticides or fertilizers are used in the lab. 


Green house Area

The green house will allow our students the opportunity to have living plants throughout the year, which will extend the growing season. It is lined with a pea rock floor to allow for drainage and allows students to propagate seeds so that they are mature enough to plant in spring.

“The students plan to utilize vertical gardening and hope to eventually incorporate aquaponics into the greenhouse,” said Economou. 

Students also use this area to conduct various scientific experiments.


Koi Pond

Due to the support of the Clements family, Norfolk Collegiate was able to add an educational koi pond in September 2018.

“The pond allows students to see and get their hands on a real aquaponics system,” said Economou. “Students are able to watch the fish in their natural habitat and see the water filter through the natural bog filter above. This filter cleans the water by way of rocks and plants roots which absorb all of the nutrients from the waste created by the fish. Then, the clean reoxygenated water is sent back to the fish to help them prosper.”

Economou also feels “there is no better learning than organic learning that allows students to spark their natural curiosity and then immediately learn from it. As educators, we are fostering that curiosity. I feel very fortunate and blessed to be given this amazing outdoor area for scientific discovery alongside all of my favorite young scientists.”


For more information on the outdoor learning lab, please contact Economou at or click here for a list of frequently asked questions.