Mobile classroom at Malone encourages outdoor, environmental education

There was more to the scavenger hunt than the search for the plants and leaves and bugs. The enthusiastic net-wielding group of young folks taking advantage of the waning daylight late on a December afternoon also marked the arrival of a small trailer, parked in the corner of the Malone Center parking lot.

That trailer is a milestone for a project begun two years earlier to bolster existing after-school programs, as well as a way to show support for a place that’s long been an integral part of Lincoln’s African American community. And, an added benefit for educators in a pandemic: The mobile classroom moves learning into the fresh air and spacious outdoors.

The mobile classrooms — called TMC (think-make-create) labs — are the brainchild of Beyond School Bells, a statewide public-private partnership that has long supported after-school programming focusing primarily on coalitions with 11 rural communities.

The labs found their way not only to rural communities — including to programs on Nebraska’s Native reservations — but to six programs in Lincoln.Education-based nonprofits in four other states bought the license from Beyond School Bells so they can develop their own labs, said Jeff Cole, the Nebraska organization's vice president.

The lab at the Malone Center is the 30th lab delivered to Nebraska after-school programs over the past two years. It's also a way for Beyond School Bells to support community organizations that represent the diversity of Lincoln, the importance of which Cole was reminded of during the racial unrest last summer sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.“We realized it was our job to step up and offer support,” he said.The organization will also build an outdoor classroom at the Malone Center to encourage outdoor and environmental activities.

Miki Montomery, the director of youth programs at the Malone Center including a preschool and an after-school program for school-age kids, was thrilled to get the mobile lab.“I’m so excited we actually have our own TMC lab,” she said. “It’s Malone on the road. We can take it anywhere we want.”

Increasing the outdoor education opportunities has been a priority for Montgomery, who believes the research that shows the health and emotional benefits of being outdoors. She wants to take it on field trips to Holmes Lake, Antelope Park, Pioneer Park — all places where kids can explore the outdoors and learn. The Malone Center's mobile lab has a greater focus on environmental education, Cole said, something his organization wants to continue with other labs. 

In addition to the equipment in all labs — tubs of Legos and art supplies and cardboard construction kits — Malone’s lab also has an additional canopy to set up outside with the tables, heaters, a solar panel and garden tools. The tubs are made of burlap, not plastic, a nod to being more environmentally conscious.

With money from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, Cole's organization will continue to add environmental features, including a mobile cart with nets and microscopes so kids can do projects in the field."Malone has kind of emerged as a demonstration project for us," Cole said.

The overarching idea behind the labs is to spark creativity and teach kids to be problem-solvers. They’re based on the idea of makerspaces, collaborative workspaces in schools, communities and on college campuses.

One of the things Montgomery loves about it is a binder full of activities kids can do — complete with lesson plans. Everything they need for the activities comes with the lab, she said.

Beyond School Bells has enlisted the help of the Honors Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to create some lesson plans, many of which are geared toward the college students and young adults who often teach in after-school programs, Cole said. Some of those honors students will help lead some activities at the Malone Center.