By. Chloe Brown and Nathan Hall, eighth grade students at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School (St.Louis, Missouri)


Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School (MRHMS) is a public middle school located in the heart of St. Louis, Missouri that serves approximately two-hundred seventh and eighth grade students. Its mission is founded on four cornerstones: stewardship, leadership, scholarship, and citizenship. These cornerstones reflect the characteristics that MRHMS strives to instill in each of its students. MRHMS also embraces sustainability and environmental education as core tenets of its green philosophy, and was recently named a 2017 Missouri Green Ribbon School, serving its students through the metaphor “School as Expedition.”


MRHMS operates by the philosophy of “learning by doing.” Using this method of teaching allows students to absorb material in a traditional classroom setting, and then apply that learning in a more interactive and stimulating environment. Expeditions take place on campus and in the communities of Maplewood and Richmond Heights. The culminating expeditions that MRHMS students take each year are two week long trips. Seventh grade students attend the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in Townsend, Tennessee, while 8th grade students attend the Gulf Coast Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Throughout the school year, smaller and more concise expeditions take place centering around core classes with specific learning targets that blend standards and school cornerstones.


The expeditions that take place at MRHMS are an example of how the school incorporates place-based education into its curriculum. Place-based education is defined as hands-on learning opportunities that blend project-based learning and events in the real world, allowing students an opportunity to collect data while interacting with their environments. MRHMS has several areas on its small urban footprint that allow for place-based education including a bee yard, school gardens, an urban chicken coop, and an aquaponics laboratory.  One of the more unique and historical spaces, Oscar the Red Oak tree, is ten feet from the main door of the school’s central office.


Arbor Day, mid 1940s: this is when Oscar, the approximately 72-foot-tall Red Oak residing in MRH middle and high school’s parking lot, was planted in the Wirick family’s yard. Of course, the Wirick property has long since been torn down, and the area is now the property of the MRH school district. However, as the tree grew, and generations passed, a new use for Oscar’s height was discovered. Bill Henske, a science teacher at MRHMS, had the revolutionary idea of introducing tree climbing into MRHMS’s curriculum. He contacted a tree climbing professional and the two began to develop an in-depth program involving MRHMS students in the interactive physics and biology of trees. Over time, the lesson plans involving tree climbing were refined and improved to involve every student and give all participants equal opportunity to conduct real, meaningful science.


(source: Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School)


During the fall and spring, Bill Henske and fellow science teacher Maria Canning attempt to incorporate Oscar as a learning tool into at least one unit. This spring, eighth grade students will study Oscar in their units on chemistry and cycles of matter. Throughout the year the class uses Oscar to better comprehend carbon counts in trees, as well as to apply science to mathematical formulas. In another unit involving Oscar, students collect samples of Oscar and use those samples to measure and make a diagram of different chlorophyll levels in different parts of the tree. In yet another lesson, students use Oscar’s height to calculate velocity and better understand kinetic and potential energy.


A goal of MRHMS is for tree climbing to be a possible life-time fitness and leisure activity for as many students as possible. Not only does tree climbing help students develop an understanding of the scientific properties they are currently studying, but it also gives the students an opportunity to gain the skill of tree climbing itself. The reason the middle school can afford to give its students an opportunity to learn tree climbing is mostly due to a large grant, which is not only intended for teaching science as a core and elective class, but is also used for extracurricular programs that take place outside of school and during the summer. Currently, Oscar is available to all members of the community and quite often events for both students and families are held under Oscar.


So what does the future hold for Oscar? Unfortunately, Oscar’s next years are likely to be his last. An arborist has estimated that Oscar is expected to live for another 5-10 years, which means that many future students who will attend school in the MRH school district will never see Oscar with their own eyes, let alone climb him.


However, there is an after-school club made up of students from MRHMS working to create a permanent fixture in Oscar’s memory.  In this way, future students who may be too young to climb Oscar will at least be fully aware of his long living legacy. This project involves creating a large mural commemorating Oscar, his life, his impact on the students that elevated their learning with tree climbing, and his legacy in the MRH school district. The students are also planning to harvest as many of Oscar’s acorns as possible to sell at a local farmer’s market. This market is also run by the middle school, and its mission is to give back to the community by providing the area with fresh vegetables grown in gardens located on all three campuses within the district. The purpose of selling the acorns is to help preserve Oscar’s memory by giving people a new generation of trees that may one day grow to have just as large of an impact on future students as Oscar had on the current generation.  This brings the mission of MRHMS students full circle and builds upon our mission of sustainability.


About the Authors

Chloe Brown and Nathan Hall are eighth grade students at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School.  Chloe enjoys learning about and caring for animals in general, specifically reptiles, and enjoys the company of our ball pythons, Warren and Julius Squeezer. Nathan is part of our gifted program and involves himself in various leadership positions throughout the middle school. He has taken on an active role in our Weekend on Wheels program to provide meals over the weekend to families in the community. He participates in multiple advanced courses and, along with Chloe and other students, in a program to pay tribute to Oscar and make his legacy last as long as possible.