BEETLES-Coverphotoby Kevin Beals & Craig Strang

Imagine a residential outdoor science program where instructors—all of them—routinely combine their passion for the natural world with a deep understanding of research-based teaching approaches that are based on all we know about how people learn. BEETLES (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning, Expertise & Sharing), funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, is a new project at Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley that designs professional development experiences for program leaders to use with their teaching staffs.

A group of 15 sixth grade students and their classroom teacher are on a hike led by a field instructor at a residential outdoor program. They come across a bracket fungus on the ground. The instructor, who has participated in BEETLES, calls out, “NSI,” a routine the students now recognize as Nature Scene Investigators. Quickly half the group kneels around the fungus in a tight circle. The other half stands in a circle around the inner circle.

(note: the discussions in this article are actual transcripts taken from trail hikes)
Instructor: OK, let’s hear some observations from the inner circle.
Student: It’s light.
Student: it looks charred.
Student: It looks like it’s broken off something.
Student: It looks like wood.
Student: It looks like it’s from a tree.
Instructor: Now let’s hear some questions from the outer circle.
Student: What does it feel like?
Instructor: OK, someone from the inner circle, can you say what it feels like?
Student: It’s rough here but smooth here.
Student: It feels smooth on the outside and rough on the inside.
Instructor: So, Kendra and Amir, would you agree that it’s smooth on the outside and rough on the inside?
They both examine it closely.
Student: Yep.
Student: I agree.
The students share more observations and questions, and continue to do so after the two circles have switched places and roles.
Instructor: OK, now I want you all to come up with explanations about it. Don’t forget to use evidence in your explanations.
Student: I think it was on a tree that got burned and it fell off and my evidence is because it’s black.
Instructor: Hey, did you all notice that Jared said, “I think…?” In science discussions, it’s good to use language of uncertainty, like “I think…” or “I wonder if…” because in science, you always need to be open-minded to other explanations and ideas if you find new evidence.
The students come up with several other explanations.

Instructor: Now does anyone have something to share about this that they’ve heard or read about somewhere else? But be sure to tell us your source of information.
Student: I think it’s a fungus, because we learned about fungi with our gardening teacher at school, and it looks like some of the fungi we studied.
Student: I’ve heard that they’re decomposers, and they turn dead things into dirt. I heard that from my teacher.
Instructor: This is a fungus. I’ve read that these are a type of fungus that grows on trees called bracket fungus or shelf fungus. I’ve also read that they are just the “fruit” of the fungus, and that most of the fungus looks like white threads and is spread out inside the wood. My source is a book written by a fungus expert. The book is called Mushrooms Demystified. We’re going to be checking out mysteries like this all day. We’ll be finding cool stuff, making observations, asking questions and trying to explain what we find.
Classroom Teacher: I just want to say, the more stuff you all pointed out the more I looked. You got me to look at it differently.
Instructor: Yeah that’s a great point and that’s one reason scientists often work in teams.
Student: Hey look, there’s one of those things on this tree.
Students excitedly swarm around a nearby tall stump with a few small bracket fungi on it.
Instructor: So what do you guys think now that you have this new evidence?
Student: It does grow on trees! It’s not burned because this tree isn’t burned and it’s still black.
Instructor: Is this tree alive or dead?
Student: Alive. No, wait. It’s just a big stump.
Instructor: As we hike, let’s keep our eyes out for more of these fungi and see what we find. Let’s see if we find any on living trees, or if they’re just on dead trees, like this one.
Classroom Teacher: (aside to instructor) I had no idea when I got on this hike it was going to be like this, because other hikes I’ve been on have been more about just delivering information. I want to learn as much from you as I can today about how I can do this with my students back at school.

What’s significant about this actual account, compared to many other outdoor science activities? Is any learning taking place? Why were so many student questions left unanswered?

We like NSI precisely because so much learning (and engagement) is going on. It sets a tone of inquiry, exploration, figuring things out and discussion of ideas. We want students’ minds to be at least as active as their feet. We want the students, not the instructor, to be making discoveries, asking questions, and trying to explain what they find. The instructor guides, but most of what happens is student-driven. This may look like the instructor isn’t doing much, but it is actually far more nuanced than blurting out three facts and a chant about bracket fungi.


Student (shown in photo): I feel like a scientist today.
Student: I know, I’ve never done this before.
Student: Yeah, I’ve been to the woods before, but not discovering and stuff like this.
Student: I didn’t even know I could do this.
Student: I’m gonna do this at the park near my house!

Activities like NSI taught by instructors who know how to look for evidence in the minds of learners as well as for evidence on the trail, engage students in the scientific practices called for in the soon to be published Next Generation Science Standards (National Research Council 2012) that are certain to be adopted by nearly every state in the US: asking questions, carrying out investigations, constructing explanations, engaging in argument from evidence, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. Those are tricky things to teach in a classroom, but in a rich outdoor setting, students are surrounded by opportunities to explore and investigate with these practices. Instructors have opportunities, if they know how to take advantage of them, to help students make careful observations, work together, communicate their ideas, disagree politely, remember to base their explanations on evidence, use language of appropriate uncertainty, and cite their sources of information. These thinking skills lead directly to meaning making—a very different outcome compared to memorizing the names of trees or the three different types of decomposers. And there is an added benefit. When students are talking, instructors get to hear and understand their ideas about science topics. Effective instructors build their teaching on student’s ideas, but they can only find out what those ideas are by letting students express them!

Outdoor science schools are perfectly situated to help indoor schools by focusing their teaching on scientific practices. In a rich outdoor environment with long days, myriad inquiry opportunities and a skilled instructor, students can accomplish more in a few days than they might be able to in months in a classroom.

BEETLES is designing professional development experiences that help instructors to become expert users of approaches and tools like NSI that:
• are more student-centered, less instructor-centered.
• are less about an instructor telling students information, and more about instructors giving students chances to explore, investigate and figure things out themselves.
• are less about convincing students their instructor is ”awesome,” and more about making students feel smart and capable, moved more by what nature has revealed to them than by what their instructor has revealed to them..
• empower students with skills to use when they no longer have a field instructor leading them.
• facilitate student meaning-making.
• increase students’ wonder and curiosity about the natural world.
• are less about games or activities that can be done on a playground, and more about engaging students with investigating the natural world.


Historically, investments have not been made in the development of research-based professional development and curriculum for outdoor science programs. Unlike in K-12 schools, field instructors often rely on word-of-mouth “traditions,” and tattered copies of activity outlines passed around in bruised binders. BEETLES is designing, field testing, documenting and evaluating a series of professional development sessions, each of which presents instructors with a lens through which to view and improve outdoor science instruction.

BEETLES is also creating content sessions to help field instructors grapple with their own understanding of foundational concepts basic to many outdoor science schools: cycling of matter, flow of energy, adaptation and evolution. Finally, BEETLES is designing and collecting activities, like NSI, that reflect research-based approaches and accurate science, for use in the field with children. All these materials will be available, free, via a website.

BEETLES is hosting a 5-day California Leadership Institute during Summer 2013. Pairs of leaders will be invited from 12 different outdoor science schools throughout the state. The leaders will experience the professional development sessions, activities and hikes, share their own expertise, and plan out staff training for their own staffs. We hope to empower program leaders with new materials and perspectives, but also to benefit ourselves by capturing improvements and adaptations made by the leaders.

In 2014 & 2015, BEETLES will offer a National Leadership Institute, open to program leaders around the country. Eventually the BEETLES web site will offer supporting videos that show how the activities and professional development sessions are actually led with students and staffs.

The following is from an email sent to us by a field instructor a week after she participated in a 3-day BEETLES professional development workshop:

I wanted to relay a small snippet of some kid feedback I got this week on trail. The teachers had the kids write us all notes thanking us for their week, and it was interesting the things that popped up, besides the usual “You’re the coolest everrrrrrr” messages. One note included the following: “…We learned a lot from you, because, unlike other teachers, you go in-depth on everything we learn instead of going like ‘Here’s this’ and ‘This is that.’” I know I’ve been a “Here’s this” naturalist in the past, and throughout this week was really conscious of letting kids discover and asking them broad questions, and what a cool thing to hear back the first week testing it out! Several kids mentioned NSI in their notes, and as someone who has been a naturalist for 5+ years, it was a wonderful experience this week having a new lens to look through and launch the year with. It is wonderful to continue the learning process myself, and have new tools, and test them out, and watch some of them be wildly successful. Those kids were on the edge of their seats by the end of the week after we’d noticed, wondered, and built new frames of reference and pieced together evidence for what it reminded us of for days as to what the green lacy stuff on twigs really was. Never have I had children so excited about lichen and figuring out what it was! I just wanted to share with you, because I am excited to continue experimenting with what we learned, and pass the results on.

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BEETLES invites outdoor science school instructors and leaders to participate in the development of our materials and program, and to participate in our leadership institutes. Kevin Beals ( & Craig Strang ( are the founders of BEETLES. Please visit