Polk County Early College students have been working on a way to better educate the community about what Laughter Pond has to offer as well as ways in which they can encourage more people to utilize the pond and surrounding grounds.

Students have spent this year researching potential problems and solutions around the pond including ecological restoration, wildlife, water quality, and built structures. Students made connections to other locations with a similar environment and figured out ways to improve the water quality and encourage wildlife. They also discovered which native plants could be planted as riparian buffers alongside the pond while not interfering with fishers.

Some of the current structures are in need of repair, and students see a need to help make the area more accessible; the path around the pond is not very smooth. While this process is not quick, students have gained insight on planning, researching, collaborating and proposing ideas. They are now working on telling their story with digital media support from Jay Korreck of RootEd, and they recently presented a rough cut of their video to Polk County Parks and Recreation, which owns the facility.

The idea to focus on Laughter Pond all began when four Polk County teachers came together at a year long professional development led by RootEd, an organization whose goal is “connecting students and schools with communities to solve challenges.” The timing was exceptional since the county has recently been awarded a grant for Little White Oak Mountain from the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The grant funds will be used for the area behind the middle school, but won’t cover the area around Laughter Pond, which is across the road from the front of the middle school.

Polk County Early College students, RootEd coaches and community leaders in action

Polk County Middle School science teacher Stephanie Luedi often takes students to Laughter Pond to perform water testing labs and suggested the group focus on this area. She and colleague Jeanne Ferran, who teaches AIG, have wanted an outdoor classroom for the middle school for years now, and since the grant is covering that, Ferran jumped at the opportunity to engage her students in bettering the natural environment just a short walk from school.

Andrea Walter, a fifth grade science teacher at Polk Central Elementary School, was eager to incorporate this project into her curriculum where students learned about native plants and invasive species and decided which plants would be most beneficial to Laughter Pond. They took field trips to the pond and made observations and recommendations.

Karen Rhodes, English teacher at Polk County Early College, integrated her students into the project through research and proposal writing, which led to the idea of presenting the story through a documentary. All teachers regularly collaborated and connected with community organizations, which resulted in class visits or site visits with Laura Baird, Recreation Coordinator at Polk County Recreation; Pam Torlina, Southeast Stewardship Manager of Conserving Carolina; Joel Lenk, Professional Geologist and Regional Manager of Quible & Associates, an Engineering, Environmental Science, Planning, and Surveying firm; and Liz Beck, Lance Bledsoe, and Jay Korreck of RootEd, who provided guidance throughout this process.

Next, five Early College students are going to present their ideas at a pitch contest on Saturday, June 18 in Asheville. This event will give students an opportunity to propose their ideas to an audience composed of business and community leaders in Western North Carolina. These skills, combined with researching, writing, interviewing, filming and digital editing, incorporate beneficial 21st Century skills that are part of the state public school curriculum.

Not only are students learning, but they are having fun in the process, and they are gaining experience that will last beyond the traditional classroom.