Photos by Debbie Reams Fifth graders from Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School take the measure of a structure at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell. They’re designing a “destination” treehouse for the center.
Photos by Debbie Reams
Fifth graders from Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School take the measure of a structure at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell. They’re designing a “destination” treehouse for the center.

Learn by doing. That’s the aim of a project through which a group of fifth graders are working to bring a new treehouse to the Chattahoochee Nature Center.
Not just any treehouse. This one will be special, a destination. Architect Bill Edwards, who is working with the Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School students on the project, wants “to stretch their thinking beyond the traditional treehouse.”
“I wanted them to consider the unique site for the project and the fact that this is not necessarily just a treehouse and building for kids, but may well be used and experienced by people of all ages and abilities,” he said.

Architect Bill Edwards challenged the students to “stretch their thinking” beyond a traditional treehouse.

School officials describe the treehouse  project as one dedicated to real-world problem solving while combining science, technology, engineering, art and math.
And the overall project isn’t just about the treehouse itself, HIES Lower School writing specialist Jim Barton said. “The ultimate purpose of the treehouse will be to promote environmental conservation and education along the Chattahoochee River and throughout the region,” Barton said. “Knowing the animals it is designed to protect is a crucial step in being able to credibly advocate for its construction and solicit contributions.”
The project started after Barton found out that the nature center, located on the Chattahoochee River in Roswell, wanted to repair its 40-year-old boardwalk and build a “destination” treehouse.
Barton thought he had a perfect team for the project in his writing students. Everything kind of grew from there.
“We could write the proposals, design the treehouse, work on the strategic plan and actually present it to the people who would fund it,” Barton said.
“So the idea is, this writing program − which has now spread to science, engineering, math and every discipline − is going to be the proposal that is taken to the funding corporations. I hope to see some of these kids actually presenting to corporations around the area.”

From left, Alex Aartigue, Beth Gilcreast and Chris McDonald are part of the team working on the project.

The project touches just about every class the students study. In math class, students learned the skills required to calculate spaces. Science teachers talked about the effects of pollution and how the nature center can help promote health and preservation, Barton said. In art class, students work on illustrations. In faith studies, they examine myths associated with the environment and spiritual ideas Native American tribes connected to the Chattahoochee River.
The students are “set loose” to work on the different aspects of the projects in different classes, fifth-grade student Chris McDonald said. “Every single class is a different level,” McDonald said.
The class first visited the nature center in October. They started the project by conducting “extensive research on the animals and vegetation” in and around the nature center, Barton said.
The students spoke in November with naturalists from the nature center and with Edwards, the architect, who visited the school. Edwards talked to students about design, engineering, style, materials and construction of a treehouse. He said the students impressed him. “I feel the students were engaged and interested in the process,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he focused his presentation on the experience, so that the project and its goals would be memorable to the students.
“I also wanted them to begin the project with goals or a program in mind – not just start drawing and see what happens, but to have a plan,” Edwards said.
He said he asked them if they wanted a “fun place,” a “contemplative place” or a little of both, and he asked if the designs would blend into the natural environment or “make a statement.”
“All of these are intentional decisions in design,” Edwards said.
By early December, students started working on a website at hiestreehouseproject.com that features the story, photos and video of the project.
The video will be used to present the project to Treehouse Masters, a TV show on the Animal Planet network that showcases construction of elaborate treehouse s.
“Also, each student will have his or her own webpage, which will feature a summary of his or her proposal, a sketch of the proposed treehouse, a research summary and a video pitch intended for potential donors, corporations and the Treehouse Masters production company,” Barton said.
“I think it’s kind of cool that we’re building a treehouse  and trying to work with the Treehouse Masters,” fifth-grader Beth Gilcreast said.

–Ellen Eldridge