By John Toole
---- — WINDHAM — The indoor part of the Quarrybrook Outdoor Learning Center is going up off Roulston Road.
Crews yesterday started framing the two-and-a-half story, 18,000-square-foot building that will house the center.
But the real classrooms for the ambitious, regional institute are in the fields beyond its future walls.
“This is the only building on site,” executive director Kristina Ellis said. “Our goal is to keep the site as natural and as wild as possible.”
Quarrybrook is being developed by the North Andover-based El Hefni Technical Training Foundation.
The institute aims to provide ecology-related science enrichment classes for students at all grade levels in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Its work already has started.
“We’ve been working with a handful of private schools out of Lawrence,” Ellis said.
Stephanie Cross, head of science with the Lawrence Family Development Charter School, said more than 100 students have taken part in pilot programs at the institute.
“The space there is gorgeous,” Cross said.
Ellis was able to run an engineering related class for eighth-graders using catapults, while teaching fifth-graders about Earth science.
Cross said the programs benefitted her students.
“As an urban school, we don’t have the space to do that,” she said.
The nearly 300-acre property includes fields, forest land, a pond and a stone bridge. It’s about five minutes from Interstate 93.
“They just had a blast,” Cross recalled of participating students. “Everybody came back wet and happy.”
Ellis hopes to interest Windham public schools in participating in pilot programs, as Quarrybrook looks to become fully operational by spring.
“I’d say the pilot program for elementary and middle school education is moving into the active phase,” Ellis said.
Quarrybrook also has had students from Merrimack College on site and is in talks with Northern Essex Community College, Ellis said.
Merrimack College associate professor David MacLaren estimated nearly 150 of his biology students have participated in lichen and bird projects at Quarrybrook.
“This has been a great opportunity for us to initiate cool research projects,” MacLaren said.
Quarrybrook has amounted to a field station for Merrimack College, he said.
He sees a potential for Merrimack College education majors to take advantage of the institute as well.
“We hope this will grow in the future,” MacLaren said. “We do see it being a long-term partnership.”
The charitable Technical Training Foundation had about $60 million in assets as of two years ago.
Ibrahim El-Hefni, founder of Microwave Engineering Corp., established the foundation in the 1990s to provide medical and educational support to people.
He died in 2005, but his daughter, Suzanne Wright, serves on the foundation board.
She has said he owned the land in Windham for years, but didn’t want to sell it, preferring instead to see it put to a better use.
Quarrybrook has two full-time employees, including Ellis, and one part-time employee.
Ellis came from California and the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy to head up Quarrybrook.
She is adapting what she’s learned through education programs in California to Windham.
“This is a really neat opportunity to take something that’s already been field tested,” she said. “We’ve very excited about the product.”
Cross described Ellis as an outstanding education specialist and she sees a great future for the institute.
“It is going to be phenomenal. It has the potential to be one of the outstanding outdoor learning centers,” she said. “I think people will be clamoring to get in.”