BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- Members of the Columbia Middle School (CMS) First Lego League team presented their plans to renovate the Inner Courtyard at their school to board members at the first meeting of the year.

The reaction from school board members was positive on all fronts, from the choice of the project to the presentation itself and the effort made to consider each and every aspect of the renovation. 

The students who made the presentation are part of the First Lego League, a robotics league with a “twist,” in which solving real-world problems is part of every project. They compete against teams across the nation in robotics and several other areas in which they are judged -- each year the theme is different. This year’s theme was “cities and their local communities,” and team members identified the state of the inner courtyard at CMS as the problem they wished to solve.

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They presented their vision for the courtyard which Sofia, a team member, described as “a bit of a wreck.” She explained team members decided they could fix the space by cleaning it up, eliminating water issues, establishing a permanent vegetable garden, and creating an outdoor classroom in the space, Sofia said. Those changes would help “strengthen our local and school community,” she said.

Ryan said the team would like to make the courtyard a place where students could “hang out and chill out” during their lunch or a free period. There would be board games available for students to use to help relax their minds. The space could also be used to grow vegetables and herbs, with the produce being donated to the Little Flower Church Food Bank or used in the Top Chef class at CMS. 

The gardens could be maintained by a school garden club and students could earn community service hours by helping in the garden and courtyard, he said.

Hayden described the courtyard as “muddy and moist” which is why students tend not to use it now. The mud seems to be coming into the area because an existing drain is not working properly -- the water does not flow into the drain, instead it forms a muddy puddle around it, he said. The proposed solution to this problem would be to install a patio made of permeable pavers on the west side of the courtyard. 

Justin used a rendering of a bird’s eye view of the current courtyard, and said it is “cluttered and dirty.” The main goal of the project is to make it a more welcoming and attractive place for visitors, he said.

Sophie showed a diagram of the new layout. Bushes would be cut back and the gazebo and tables in the courtyard would be cleaned up, the ground cleared out of debris and the new drainage system installed. A simple 3-D rendering of the area provided a walk-though view of the area.

Colin talked about the fruits and vegetables planned for the space. The Top Chef elective course and the food bank at Little Flower Church are open to the idea of accepting produce by the spring of 2021, which coincides with the team’s time frame.

Ayush discussed the cost of the renovations, which totaled an estimated $8,604.28. Maintaining the courtyard and growing the potatoes, tomatoes and carrots could cost about $100 a year he said. 

Luke said the team has decided to fund the project in a number of ways -- through donation cans placed at the end of lunch lines, bake sales, the use of a “go fund me page,” and by increasing the price of joining clubs from $75 to $76. The goal is to have raised $8,500 by the start of the 2020 school year, he said.

Workers will be recruited by the use of flyers, and contacting organizations such as Boy and Girl Scouts, CCD and other groups. Flyers at the high school will attract students who want to accumulate community service hours for college applications, team members hope.

Sofia said team members “believe that by fulfilling our vision for the courtyard, we will be able to inspire other communities throughout the county, state, and even the country, to follow in our footsteps.”

Board members commended the group for its presentation. 

Board member Chris Reilly praised the students for taking on the renovation of the courtyard and said she was especially impressed the students didn’t “use a script” for their presentation.

Angela Penna, who had been sworn in to the board earlier in the meeting, said “That area has been an area for years that people have been interested in doing something and I commend you for stepping up, putting a plan together and actually doing something that will actually benefit the community.” She asked when they planned to start and was told “basically ASAP,” and have it started before the presenters leave Columbia at the end of the school year. Flyers and discussion will help them pass down the idea to sixth and seventh grade students, who will continue the work and maintain the garden for years to come.

Newly sworn-in board member Mike D’Aquila, asked how the students created the 3-D presentation and, after being given the answer, called that portion of the presentation “very impressive.” He also asked if they had consulted with the Environmental Commission and learned they do plan to do so.

Board member Helen Kirsch asked where they planned to put the outdoor classroom and learned it would be in the area of the gazebo.

Board President Doug Reinstein thanked the students and reminded them that the school board has often contributed to special projects and said, “as you go through your fundraising, keep us posted. The board of ed also would like to contribute to that as well. We love to see students take initiative like you have, we love the environmental and green aspects,” of the project and the fact that is student run, “puts icing on the cake.” 

The complete presentation can be found on the school district’s website, here