Official Dedication of Learning Space Highlights Growing Commitment to Community and IUP Student Experiences

Posted on 10/21/2019 2:05:53 PM

Indiana University of Pennsylvania officially dedicated a 7,150-square-foot outdoor classroom on October 18 in honor of an IUP graduate, whose commitment will benefit the area for decades.

Meghan Tweist and Larry F. Sobotka featured beside a newly constructed sign honoring his donation to the Science Discovery and Outdoor Learning Center named for Sobotka.

Meghan Tweist and Larry F. Sobotka featured beside a newly constructed sign honoring his donation to the Science Discovery and Outdoor Learning Center named for Sobotka.

Larry F. Sobotka, a 1963 education graduate, traveled from Florida and was on hand for the unveiling of a sign, bearing his name, dedicating the Larry F. Sobotka Science Discovery and Outdoor Learning Center. Located in the courtyard of Stouffer Hall facing Willow Avenue, the area is home to four specific areas dedicated to hands-on, outdoor environmental instruction and exploration.

Sobotka made a $150,000 gift in support of the Center and has designated IUP to receive a portion of his estate through an irrevocable testamentary pledge valued at upwards of $1 million.

In operation since 2012, the outdoor learning space has been utilized by hundreds of children and IUP students as a living-learning classroom. Teachers from Indiana Area School District’s East Pike Elementary attended the dedication were on hand to tell about bringing students to the science discovery center.

“We love the partnership we have with IUP and how pre-student teachers have prepared the lessons for the center,” kindergarten teacher Ashley Rosendale said. “The children light up touching the leaves and water, collecting bugs, looking at the footprints. It’s completely authentic learning. We can’t always provide that on our campus but with just the price of a bus trip across town, it’s all right here.”

Not only do local scout troops and garden clubs use the space, IUP education majors from a variety of programs develop lesson plans for learning and get direct experience thinking through instruction.

“The experience our IUP education majors and pre-student teachers get from here is invaluable,” Meghan Twiest, director of the Center, said. “They normally haven’t experienced teaching children environmental education concepts. It often is one of the first times these budding teachers design lessons that they immediately implement with students.”

Twiest’s goal in conceptualizing the area years ago was to help current teachers visualize a small space as a learning environment at their home schools.

“Each of the learning areas were designed with a specific purpose in mind, looking at a variety of environment concepts. The succession area is for children to see a habit and how it changes over time. They can see our state tree, the Eastern Hemlock,” said Twiest. “There’s a touch and smell garden planted with a variety of unique specimens with various textures and scents and plants with interesting characteristics. Tracks in the concrete sidewalks reveal animal footprints which helps students see how different animal make tracks. Instructors also provide periscopes to look under water in the aquatic area that has fish, frogs and plants.”

While the area serves educators and children through learning activities, Twiest said it is common to see folks sitting on a bench or walking through, enjoying nature.

“Staff, faculty, and others at IUP sit here for lunch or walk through to get a change of scenery. The area is also just an outdoor space for folks to relax and get out of their sterile environment. We hold an ice cream social here for several groups at the beginning of the semester. Classes are held out here and alumni have been here for various meetings. It’s used frequently.”

During Friday’s dedication, with temperatures in the 50’s and a brisk wind, Sobotka joked some funds could be used to buy a heater. “It’s not Florida weather.”

“I’m pleased to make the gift to the university. It’s for the children and their teachers who will use this learning center to develop relationships between themselves, the outdoor environment and the university,” Sobotka said. “IUP will be the benefactor for constructing and molding this facility into a place where this can happen. A tiny seed produces a large tree over time. In a very small way, I have provided the small seed to continue this growth and the growth of this center.”

Others who spoke at the ceremony Friday were IUP President Michael Driscoll; Lara Luetkehans, dean of the College of Education and Communications; and Heidi Higbee, a third grade teacher at East Pike Elementary.

IUP’s Imagine Unlimited is a $75-million comprehensive campaign, which currently has gifts totaling over $62 million. The campaign will enable the IUP community to reach its shared vision and step forward as a national leader, distinguished by new thinking that has no limits and that cuts across traditional academic boundaries.