Little placards mounted at the bases of trees on the Discovery Trail let students know whether they're looking at a tulip poplar, a dogwood, a northern red oak, or a number of other trees along the path. The 1.1-mile trail runs from Coles Elementary School to Benton Middle School and on to Colgan High School, and eventually, further extended into the landfill property.
Wooden benches, arranged in semi-circles to make outdoor classrooms, dot the trail; and 75 signs along the way give information on the flora and fauna that live in the forest, along with the benefits of recycling, the benefits of trees, the elements of a healthy watershed and other educational information.
The trail, which was built to provide a learning environment for Prince William County students, came to fruition through cooperation among the Prince William County Solid Waste Division's Solid Waste Citizens Advisory Group, Prince William County Department of Public Works, Prince William County Department of Parks and Recreation, the Spark Education Foundation, Prince William County Public Schools, Dominion Virginia Power and Boy Scout Troops 1195 and1363.
During a recent trail dedication ceremony, Prince William County Public School System Superintendent Steven Walts said the trail, which is situated within a 1,000-foot buffer between the Prince William County Landfill Complex and Colgan High School, would serve as a great educational resource. "One of the things we try to promote a lot in Prince William County Public Schools is a variety of opportunities for students to learn. Being out in the environment is often very, very engaging… I think these opportunities for environmental science that can happen at all three levels – elementary, middle and high school – are going to be really great opportunities for our students."
The trail also has directional signs along the way. Mike Yates, an Eagle Scout candidate from Troop 1363, worked on getting the signs installed as part of his Eagle Scout project. Yates said he found a good reason for putting in the signs. "The first time I walked it, I got lost. I was out there for a while," the 16-year-old said. "I pulled out the GPS."
Ryan Marks, 17, of Troop 1195, helped organize the installation of one of the three outdoor classrooms. Marks said learning outside can augment what's available in books. "The school system has helped me to realize the kind of things that I want to do. Science is a thing I've been interested in, but biology, for me, wasn't always as engaging as I thought it could have been because we just looked at pictures. Having a classroom like this, you can actually go out and see animals, see trees, see all different parts of the ecosystem working together. I think that's really important to help students do that."
The Solid Waste Citizens Advisory Group came up with the idea for the trail. The Prince William County Solid Waste Division provided the land for the trail in its buffer area. The Prince William County Parks and Recreation Department cleared the trail and will continue trail maintenance. SPARK, with a stated mission "to engage community partners to fund and promote initiatives that enhance educational excellence," worked with Prince William County Schools to develop classroom curriculum. Dominion provided and installed the informational signs and kiosks, along with sheds to store equipment.
Prince William Solid Waste Division Chief Tom Smith said he hoped the trail was just the beginning. "This trail is just the first phase, we hope, of many opportunities to use the landfill and the landfill property for education."
The trail is open to educational groups. If you would like to use the trail, you must receive permission from the County and schools prior to use. Please contact the Department of Public Works, Solid Waste Division at 703-792-4670 for more information.