September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Let’s Get Them Outside!

Posted: Friday, May 5th, 2017

by Jacquelyn Johansen

As a science teacher, I am lucky enough to be able to take my students to several outdoor venues where students have the opportunity to learn in a natural environment. This has been an invaluable part of their education experience: students can multiply their knowledge of field methods, make strides in their environmental stewardship, and learn to use NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards). Based on my observations of student learning in outdoor environments, I set out to find answers about how inquiry and participatory education opportunities affect the attitudes of students towards nature.

I surveyed students on two field trips to a local zoo and found they showed statistically significant increases in their connectedness to nature using the Nisbet Nature Relatedness Survey (Nisbet, et al, 2009). This survey included nature “experience” questions such as, “I take notice of wildlife wherever I am,” and “perspectives” questions such as, “I think a lot about the suffering of animals” (Nisbet, et al, 2009). Students also showed increases in the category of “self,” which included statements related to the entitlement of humans to resources such as, “humans have the right to use natural resources any way we want” (Nisbet, et al, 2009). This category seeks to distinguish individuals who feel a strong sense of environmental stewardship from those who are willing to take what they want without considering the cost to the world around them. Based on the results of these surveys, it has become clear to me that outdoor learning can be an integral part of a student’s educational experience. 

Why is this important, and how should it influence our teaching? Habitat loss occurs when natural habitats are destroyed and are no longer able to support the species present. Humans are the number one cause of habitat loss (Tilman & Lehman, 2001). As habitat loss increases worldwide, the need for people to connect with the natural world around them is critical. Now is the time to be thinking about how to get students outdoors and to plan field trips that will impact learners.

As an experienced teacher, I see a window that is currently wide-open for educators to expand student’s comfort zones with outdoor inquiry and participatory education. My research showed such techniques to have a large impact on students’ perspectives on nature. Not only do the newest science standards require more real-life applications, but research also strongly suggests that this is where the most headway in science education is being made (James & Williams, 2007). Many states, school districts, and publishers are still trying to figure out how to tailor exams to test the new standards. While the microscope is focused on exams, teachers should put their fears about inquiry to the side and create assignments that will increase passion, nurture curiosity, and instill a love of the natural world in their students.

Outdoor inquiry is still something that many science teachers may find new and daunting. However, as students move through school with the new NGSS, they will become more accustomed to the successes and frustrations that accompany true inquiry. There are many things that we, as teachers, can do to get our students more involved with nature. Try having your students study the California Floristic Province and highlight that the students live in a biodiversity hotspot. Have them complete a transect outside and do species counts on native, invasive, drought tolerant or water-guzzling plants. Encourage students to make recommendations to the school or PTA based on their findings. Complete tidepool studies, rain monitoring, local pond or vernal pool observations, or test erosion. Schedule a trip to a local zoo, nature center, or aquarium. These establishments often offer terrific student programs. You may have to plan the trip, but you can let the venue do the teaching. Additionally, many of them offer free lessons for teachers to take home. These are the kinds of connections that people need to be making with nature in order to foster future environmental stewardship and accountability.

Can’t get a field trip or outing approved? Bring the outdoors to the students by having them solve real world problems. Using web-based programs like iTree Canopy, students can calculate the amount of carbon dioxide that is being removed from the atmosphere by the trees in a location that they select on Google Maps. Have them create their own maps and hypothetically restore areas to learn how small changes can influence the whole ecosystem. Give ethograms a try. Ethograms are a data collecting tool where students can select several behaviors that an animal may exhibit. Students then make tick marks at 15-second intervals each time an animal exhibits that behavior. Potential animal behaviors may include preening, pacing, playing, eating, sleeping, or eliminating. This data can be used to analyze items such as enclosures and interactions. It can help students make inferences into behaviors and make data-driven suggestions for improvements. If you haven’t tried them before, pair up ethograms with zoo webcams for a virtual inquiry lab excursion. Students can select animal webcams from a location like a zoo or nature preserve. They will have so much fun deciding which data to collect and making meaningful inferences as to what they have learned. Think of the fun discussions that you could have.

Students learn amazing things when they have ownership of their learning. This is our chance to experiment with new ideas and teaching methods. While NGSS tests are in their pilot phase, let’s try new things, and shoot for the moon. Let’s get them outside!

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Julian Charter School for allowing me the freedom to teach the change that I want to see in the world. I would also like to thank San Diego Zoo Safari Park and Beckman Center staff for being a transformational force in the world of science education.

James, J. K., & Williams, T. (2017). School-Based Experiential Outdoor Education: A Neglected Necessity. Journal Of Experiential Education, 40(1), 58-71

DT., & C. L. (2001, May 08). Human-caused environmental change: Impacts on plant diversity and evolution. Retrieved April 2, 2017, from http://www.pnas.org/content/98/10/5433.short

Jackie Johansen is lead online teacher and science department chair at Julian Charter School in Menifee, CA and is a member of CSTA.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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