Thursday, June 03, 2010

Field trip - stone walls and landscape construction

Flickr Image: the chicken is eyeing the cement trowl by bronwynannh

Today I got out from under the fluorescent lights, and went on a field trip to see what Alan Ferguson and his landscape construction students were building. I followed Alan’s instructions to their secret location in Leith Valley, and knew I was in the right spot when I saw the team of 13 students busily working outside. The first sign that landscaping was in progress were the two stone pillars at the entrance to the property. They look magnificent and have a very stylish wrought iron gate attached. As part of the current project, students were building stone walls in the front yard of a very attractive villa. These are part of a small terraced garden.

It was interesting to watch Alan moving between the different students to help them in their different tasks. His teaching was like watching a conductor leading an orchestra – instead this time the stones were the music. Everyone had a different role in the team. Some students were carefully fitting parts of the stone jigsaw together, and others were cementing stones in place. Some students were wheeling barrows full of concrete for sealing the wall, or gravel for the walled garden, while others were conferring about the look of the wall and noting the irregularities. Everyone was a cog in the wheel. They were either working with someone else to decide on the best way to place a rock, or smooth the cement, or they were bringing materials for others to use. Some were practicing their skills in communication.

This was group work in action in an authentic situation. The practical construction work is underpinned by theory about the materials, and the principles of constructing a stone wall. The walls I saw were built from irregularly-shaped rocks, which were not easy to place, and some of those rocks looked pretty heavy. There was also chipping and shaping required as very few rocks fit neatly into the right spot in a wall. I am not sure of the correct terms for this process. And to add to the real live experience, while they worked on the walls, a few chickens wandered around to check things out. At one stage, a “wild” rabbit hopped past, pursued by one of the student’s children. That’s what I call flexible – working in a real location, amongst the livestock, and with a child in tow. Luckily the sun was shining though it got brisk when it disappeared behind the hill. If Alan hadn’t supported this flexibility, the student would have missed a day in class, and some pretty valuable hands on learning.

The construction of the stone walls and structures at the location in Leith Valley has been a three year project. Different groups of students have had the opportunity to work for a real client. Each group has constructed an aspect of the wall for the landscaped garden. Ideally, Alan would like to be able to teach the students to build stone structures like this on-site at the polytechnic, to take some of the pressure off having to have the walls “perfect” for a client.

As he said “That way they can make mistakes and it doesn’t matter, … they learn best by making mistakes”. Perhaps there is a compromise – some building on-site (which they already do when its wet) and some “real location” work – though the timeframes are tight as there are lots of things to learn for the Landscape Construction certificate.

The programme is one year long, and since it was changed to a unique programme and is not embedded in Horticulture, it is attracting students who are mainly interested in landscape construction. Apparently, this has helped with motivation levels as they are learning topics relevant to their path of study. I got a chance to talk to some of the students when they were having a breather and watching Alan sprinkling part of the wall and path to help the sand settle. A couple of students said they were looking forward to getting jobs so they could use their landscape construction skills. One student was intending to return to the landscaping firm for whom he had previously worked. The key to the skills they students were learning, according to Alan, was being able to practice the skills. What they were learning was just the start and required lots of practise.

I wonder if Alan would consider getting the students to build virtual stone walls to practice what they were learning in theory, before they went out on site to work? Not quite the same though is it? It really is about getting your hands dirty and wet, and braving the real outdoors, and learning from mistakes. Great work Alan, I really enjoyed “going on location”.

You can view the full set of photos in the set: Landscape construction Otago Polytechnic.