Three middle-schoolers crowded around a trough of mud in the middle of a lab in Chichester Hall. As if on cue, each of them dug his or her hands deep in the mud and pulled it to one side of the container.

The Longwood students—soon to be teachers themselves—who stood next to the middle-schoolers laughed as a pair of mud-caked hands reached for another pitcher of water to pour onto the pile.

The experiment took place in the middle of a dozen other projects—each one seemingly livelier and more hands-on than the next. Later on in the day, the middle-schoolers walked across campus to Wygal Hall for an equally interactive lesson in fine arts. The children are all from Nottoway County, where opportunities to learn like this aren’t always available.

"We formed this initiative in 2013 and have been working with Nottoway County to hone and expand it every semester since then," said Dr. Kathy Gee, an assistant professor of environmental science who developed the program. "We’ve worked with the honors program coordinator in Nottoway to take project-based learning to heart and give these kids a hands-on opportunity to study science. We challenge them to think about science in new ways, and they are really engaged and focused while they’re on campus."

The benefits don’t stop at the middle-schoolers, though. For the Longwood students, most of whom are liberal studies majors and pre-service teachers, the project is an initiative that lets them interact with schoolchildren before they even step into a classroom and learn to identify and hone in on SOL points the students need to address.

"This may be their first real experience working with students," said Gee. "I had one [Longwood] student who said he changed his major because his experience working with middle-school students showed him that’s what he wanted to do with his life."

It’s not all science, though. Last year, Nottoway County organizers asked Longwood to integrate a literacy and fine arts component into the initiative that would further reach SOL goals. So Gee reached out to Dr. Pat Lust, professor of music and coordinator of the liberal studies program.

"We spend half the day with the students focusing on integrating music, drama and art," said Lust. "Our lesson plans are coordinated with Kathy’s science project so that we are really building off each other and creating some important connections for the children."

This year, the fine arts project was built around one of the most familiar and iconic tunes in the American canon: "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The children learned several verses to the song, then added instrumentation and created original choreography. Once their creative juices were flowing, Lust and her liberal studies students took it to the next step: They asked students to write a new verse to the song describing the terrain and habitat of Virginia—something they had been studying in science class.

The project didn’t stop there. Groups of the students then researched one of three different places in the U.S.—Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Alaska—and wrote another verse to their song. The results were charming and sweet:

Beautiful Yellowstone
Home to buffalo
Has high flying geysers
And then there’s Old Faithful.

Yellowstone is colorful
So pretty and unique
Rugged mountains, waterfalls
And high mountain peaks.

"This day is so valuable to both the students who spend the day on campus and our pre-service teachers," said Lust. "It’s been such a success that it provides a solid framework on which to build more programs like this and continue our substantial outreach to our community partners."

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