May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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!


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

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:

Leave a Reply


Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.