by Jane Tesner Kleiner, RLA
Imagine walking out the back door of your school, surrounded by the songs of spring time birds, the soft scents of flowers in bloom, the wind billowing through nearby trees, and (if you are lucky) the croaking of Pacific tree frogs. Sounds great? But… it doesn’t sound like your school? What if?
It may sound daunting, the idea of transforming your school grounds into a green, lush learning environment. However, there are great resources out there, to help put your school on-track to having learning and play environments that include lots of nature. It’s not only the kids who love and benefit from being in natural spaces; so do the school staff and the neighboring community, too.
So many schools have little more than grassy fields, paved surfaces and fenced areas. They may have a few trees and landscape beds, and hopefully an awesome playground, but most are static and sterile environments. There can be benefits to these school grounds: they are relatively safe, and it’s easy to monitor the kids during outside time. They are also seem easy to maintain (although mowing costs are a big pull on a maintenance budget). Yet, they don’t provide opportunity for imagination, let alone the creative activity that sparks imagination.
Over the last 30 years, a growing body of research strongly asserts that children experience myriad benefits from daily access to nature. Richard Louv, of the Children and Nature Network, states in an online article that,
“…including schoolyards with natural play spaces and gardens can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity, and social cohesion. New longitudinal studies also suggest that nature-rich schools can help raise standardized test scores. And children in low-income communities appear to benefit proportionally more from access to green space than those in higher-income communities.”
Research also suggests that providing close-to-home, regular, access to nature will help kids overcome fears of the unknown. Adventuring further, they build self-confidence and interest in the broader world.
In a normal M-F week, children spend 41% of their waking hours at school. With that in mind, school grounds are uniquely positioned to provide access to nature for kids. I certainly see benefits in the students that I work with, not to mention my own kids. I have seen students become self-assured, skilled and proud owners of their schools’ outdoor spaces.
There is also the matter of agency, of capitalizing on kids’ buy-in by involving them in the planning stages. Promoting student voice throughout the planning, design, fundraising, installation and maintenance of school greenspaces gives them hands-on experiences that they may not get elsewhere. And the ownership? People don’t destroy what they built themselves.
To begin, start by listening. Here are some things that I’ve heard, from schools I work with in the Vancouver area:
- When asked what changes kids would want to see to their school campus, they said two things: more fun play equipment and have the school grounds be their own backyard fieldtrip.
- When staff were asked where they want their school facility to be in 5 years, they want to be able to teach outdoors; this includes garden spaces and a diverse setting of natural elements.
- Teachers want to be able to teach using the whole school campus, making use of all features.
- The process for considering “how” to change the campus, let alone fundraise and maintain the new nature features is daunting.
Where do you start? Luckily, there are professionals who can help every school maximize the opportunity to add more nature to your campus.
It starts with lots of conversations, centered around a few key principles.
In essence, the design will:
- meet multiple goals, including direct ties to curriculum.
- allow for exploration, observation, discovery and fun.
- expand and broaden structured AND self-guided learning and play.
- foster a child’s sense of wonder and curiosity.
- build upon what kids love to do: jump & hop; climb & balance; build & take apart; make art; allow for passive quiet time; use all senses. Create! Imagine! Explore!
Now that you’re excited to get going and transform your school grounds, here is a short recipe for a successful campus plan:
- Culture. Form a team to build your natural schoolyard. The team will brainstorm, plan, design, build and maintain the spaces. Don’t rely on one person, or else it won’t be sustainable in years to come. Bring on partners and ask for help! PTO/A’s, local businesses, community groups. Local businesses may be a source of funding, but business people have an inherent stake in the health of their nearby schools. Give them a chance to offer their ideas, skills and, yes, money.
- Individuality. Each school is unique. Build upon its existing features and add elements that easily complement the site. If you make it too complicated, it will be hard to maintain in years to come.
- Diversity. Each user group will have different goals for the enhancements, and sometimes they will conflict. By discussing the goals and objectives first, with children’s well-being the focus of the conversation, the best solution can be refined to meet everyone’s needs. Provide something for everyone.
- Community. Every child, every family has something to gain. Tap into your school community. You have a ready-made pool of hundreds of concerned, hard working adults. Learn who has skills, talents, and materials to contribute to the project. This will help build ownership in the project over time.
- Inclusiveness. Make sure all the right people have had a chance to weigh in with their ideas and approvals: district staff (facilities, curriculum leads, risk, etc.), teachers, school staff, maintenance, grounds, and most importantly the students.
- Problem Based Learning. Engage the students in every step, and empower them to meaningfully contribute, create and build a successful set of spaces for the next generation of students. This is learning! Kids will learn important, lasting lessons at every step.
- Partnership. Find local and national organizations to support your project. Possibilities include:
- certifying for wildlife habitat
- becoming a state certified Green School
- supporting the national pollinator project.
(Certification goals are great motivators, rallying stakeholders to, “keep on track and get the plaque!”)
- Consultation. Work with a local professional (e.g. landscape architect, school garden coordinator, etc.) to facilitate the discussions. They can capture all of the ideas and put it into one overall master plan for the site and create a report that can be used for approvals, fundraising and keeping the project on track over the years.
In the end, here is the winning equation:
program needs + site opportunities + available resources + curriculum goals = action plan
What goes into the plan?
Consider what type of features to add to your schoolyard.
The physical space.
- Wildlife habitat. Native trees, shrubs, and flowers to attract butterflies, birds and mammals (provide food/water/shelter/place to raise young).
- Outdoor classrooms. For classes and small groups to gather to work, listen and learn.
- Nature play. Use natural materials for kids to actively engage in unstructured and imagination play.
- Working spaces to actively plan, plant, grow and manage plants such as vegetables, fruits and flowers.
- Messy areas. Creative spaces to make art, containing moveable elements to build and change.
- Quiet spaces. Beautiful, peaceful settings with small group seating, to listen, slow down, de-stress and regroup.
- Exploration spaces. Unique spaces that support a variety of curricula; might include elements for tactile learning, such as water tables, sand play, learning lab stations, and more.
- Experiment stations. Areas that support the testing of theories, experimentation and active learning. Could include built-in features such as solar equipment, rain harvesting station, or space to create.
- Green infrastructure. Your school district may want to upgrade features to meet sustainability goals, such as stormwater management, energy efficiency, reducing heat island effects, etc. Meet their needs while creating active learning spaces. Welcome these ideas, as they are often tied to grant money.
Photo from the Intertwine
Creating the space is one thing, using it is another. Look for the tools that will help your school use the campus successfully:
- When talking to potential partners, emphasize the 4C’s of 21st Century learning:
- critical thinking
Successfully redesigned schoolyards encourage all of them.
- Provide training to your staff. Help them find the resources and lessons that tie to their curriculum goals. Most school districts will have a specialist available to help.
- Identify agencies that offer programs for outdoor learning, and invite them (repeatedly) to your campus. Look for watershed and conservation groups, environmental education centers, local environmental professionals, and sportsmens organizations.
- Encourage your district to hire a garden or outdoor teacher or coordinator, to works with your teaching staff to coordinate the activities and lessons that are taught outdoors. The lessons can cover all curriculum areas, as well as activities to build social skills, independent learning and team building.
- Meet maintenance goals by creating jobs for students, classes or small groups to accomplish throughout the year. Create a shared calendar to outline the needs and then divvy up the tasks. Don’t leave it to one dedicated or passionate person….they will eventually have to move on.
- Make it the culture of the school to embrace, use, respect and care for your whole campus. The school community spends so much time together on campus, use the entire space to your advantage and care for it as a resource.
- Remember, your space will be used after school (programs and neighborhood use) and during the summer. Embrace the fact that a variety of users will use the space. Finding ways to welcome them will encourage others to care for it and keep an eye on things when school is not in session.
If you need ideas on how to use your campus for outdoor learning, there are lots of great guides and curriculum resources that provide engaging activities for all grade levels (early childhood, pre-K, K-12). A few examples include:
- The BioBlitz. No, this isn’t a game or app (check out the National Parks website). In this activity, students look for all living species on your campus. Have them document what they find and identify the species (plants, insects, mammals, birds, etc.). You can make it as simple or complex as you need to, based on the age and curriculum. Include writing, art, science and math.
- Scavenger hunt. Have kids look for a different theme, such as all things that collect and move the rainwater (What happens to rain drops when they land on the various surfaces?); have the kids find different shapes in the natural elements on campus; etc.
- Nature journal. Document the changing seasons on your campus. What are the colors for each season? Temperature changes? Weather patterns? Different animals?
- Art projects. Have kids pick a couple natural elements and sketch them, using a variety of media. Compare and contrast what is different and same about each element.
- Plant flower bulbs. Seek donations for flower bulbs and have the kids plant them in a landscape bed. Learn about the different bulbs, the depths they need to be planted, what are the types and shapes of bulbs. Have the kids develop plant markers for each type. In the spring, monitor the progress of growth for each type, have them sketch the flowers, investigate the flower shape and talk about the parts of the plant, notice if pollinators visit the plants, create a cut flower vase and share with a classroom or community group that would benefit from fresh flowers (senior living facility).
As your school starts its journey toward a more natural schoolyard, know that these projects can take years. That’s fine! The program will benefit from starting small and building upon small successes as the project grows and changes over time. Think of a protracted timeline as an opportunity to involve more kids and their families.
Lastly, stay true to your goal. Keep the vision in mind and you will be amazed at the sustaining support you will receive to keep moving forward. Every step you take is for the health and well-being of the kids. You’ll get there.
Here are just a few resources that you can check out online.
Children and Nature Network Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities – Building a National Movement for Green Schoolyards in Every Community. http://www.childrenandnature.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CNN_GSY_Report2016_Final.pdf
Green Schoolyards America. Sharon Danks. http://www.greenschoolyards.org/home.html
Boston Schoolyard Initiative. http://www.schoolyards.org/projects.overview.html Active since 1995. Schoolyard and outdoor design guides, as well as planning, maintenance and stewardship resources.
Evergreen Green School Grounds. https://www.evergreen.ca/our-impact/children/greening-school-grounds/
National Wildlife Federation. Schoolyard Habitat program. http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Create/Schoolyards.aspx Attract and support local wildlife.
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Jane Tesner Kleiner is a registered landscape architect, ecologist and environmental educator with work in Michigan and Washington. She has spent the past 25 years working with schools, parks and ecological restoration organizations to create habitat, trails and play areas. She passionately advocates for outdoor spaces that inspire kids’ curiosity. She wears a few hats in the Vancouver, Washington area, and continues encouraging kids of all ages to get outside and explore. Her goal is to make sure every kid has a stick to play with.
 Louv, R., & Lamar, M. (2016, July 07). GROUNDS FOR CHANGE: Green Schoolyards for all Children. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.childrenandnature.org/2016/07/07/grounds-for-change-green-schoolyards-for-all-children/
 Given a full week of school and, we hope, 8 hours of sleep.
PEI Offers Food Waste and Climate Change Storyline Workshop for Teachers
Despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the United States is also one of the most wasteful. America holds the dubious distinction of throwing away more food than every other nation except Australia, an average of a pound per person each day. In total, 150,000 tons of food gets dumped daily in the U.S., the equivalent of a third of the calories we consume.</p style>
What many may not realize is how those actions contribute to the climate crisis. Now, thanks to an innovative workshop through the Pacific Education Institute (PEI), that may change. In December, 5th-grade teachers and high school teachers from Clark County and surrounding areas explored PEI’s food waste and climate change lesson plans and storyline through a free two-day professional development workshop. PEI is an award-winning statewide organization that helps teachers, schools and districts integrate place-based STEM education into their curriculum.
Funding for the workshop was provided through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (OSPI) ClimeTime initiative.
The training offered teachers an opportunity to explore the science using data, hands-on activities, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), according to PEI’s Lower Columbia Regional Coordinator Chad Mullen. “We spend a good part of the time building teacher capacity,” he explains. “We don’t assume that teachers will arrive having background knowledge of why food waste is worth focusing on or the science behind decomposition and we don’t assume that they’ll come with a diverse background of cultural values around food and waste.”
At the workshop, teachers gained tools to help students understand the issue by applying math and science. For example, in one activity they measured how much energy, water and land goes into one pound of milk in a school lunch and how much atmospheric CO2 will be produced if it’s thrown out. “We help teachers understand the tools we’ve gathered for them to use with their students,” says Mullen.
Participants learned about the tremendous resources that go into food production through seeds, water, energy and land and how to calculate the greenhouse emissions from the food that is thrown away. “Wasted food is a big part of the climactic impact,” says Mullen. “We are providing students an opportunity to understand how individuals, classrooms, and schools can be part of the climate solution.”
Food waste ends up in one of two places: the compost bin or the landfill, both of which are problematic. “If it goes into the compost, the carbon that plant pulled out of the air to make food is all going to decompose and turn back into atmospheric carbon or carbon that’s being held in the soil,” says Mullen. The decomposition process releases CO2, a recognized greenhouse gas.
But that’s not nearly as bad as what happens when food goes into a landfill. In the absence of oxygen, as it breaks down it gets converted into methane, which in the atmosphere is 104 times more destructive than CO2 over a twenty-year time span.
At the workshop, teachers gained tools to help students understand the issue by applying math and science. For example, in one activity they measured how much energy, water and land goes into one pound of milk in a school lunch and how much atmospheric CO2 will be produced if it’s thrown out. “We help teachers understand the tools we’ve gathered for them to use with their students,” says Mullen.
Cinnamon Bear, PEI’s tribal liaison for western Puget Sound region.
Another central aspect of the workshop is incorporating indigenous perspectives about food and waste. Cinnamon Bear served as PEI’s Tribal Liaison for the western Puget Sound region during the first year they offered the training. “Food waste is a prime example of how we have disconnected from our local environments and the ecosystems that provide the gifts of food and medicines that sustain us,” she says. “It’s something we can all have a very real and important impact on.”
This is the fifth food waste workshop PEI has offered and whenever possible, they include a local tribal elder or leader who can speak to the issue. When that’s not an option, participants view TEDtalks from indigenous leaders and teachers who share their perspectives. Bear says that expanding teachers’ ideas of what constitutes science has been an important first step.
“Giving hands-on, specific experiences is the method I’ve found most successful,” she says. “Having teachers make cordage from nettle, enjoy a traditional meal so they can experience how indigenous communities view food as a gift, or make a salve from cedar during a TEK lesson, all of that makes this knowledge personally relevant and motivating to the teachers who have such important work to do with our youth.”
The workshop also included collaborations with several community partners. Staff from the Clark County Green School shared their work in diverting food out of the waste stream and participants toured the Clark County Food Bank to learn about their strategies to redirect food waste toward those who need it most. Finally, they heard from Josh Hechtman, a 17-year-old high school senior who started Reproduce 81, a club at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane to send food that would normally be wasted at school home with students who would otherwise go hungry.
Teachers in the workshop heard from Josh Hechtman, a 17-year-old high school senior who started Reproduce 81, a club at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane to send food that would normally be wasted at school home with students who would otherwise go hungry.
The collaborative approach is typical of PEI’s educational model, which brings together schools and districts with conservation groups, resource management companies, and other community leaders to deliver real-world, outdoor-based STEM education rooted in local ecosystems and the industries that have grown around them. Previous workshops have yielded extraordinary results; in Chewelah, after fifth-grade students saw all the food waste they were producing, they produced a breakdown of how much it was costing the district per person – roughly the salary of one full-time teacher.
The class ended up meeting with representatives from the Spokane Tribe and managers from their local Safeway before presenting their findings to Governor Inslee. They also shared their discoveries with an international audience at the annual North American Association for Environmental Education conference.
Mullen and Bear anticipate inspiring results once Clark County teachers begin implementing what they learn in December. “I hope to see teachers and their students come out of this experience with a better understanding of some cultural values that might be different from theirs,” says Mullen, “and for our students from indigenous backgrounds to see themselves represented in the curriculum.”
Bear sees strong potential for young people to take the lead. “I want them to know they were born for this time and have a direct impact in the world we are creating and leaving for our future descendants,” she says. “I hope they realize their power and engage with the world around them with respect and reciprocity.”
To learn more, visit PEI’s website, the ClimeTime website or call 360.705.9294.
Integration Can Help You Teach
More Science and Environmental Education
by Jim McDonald
Central Michigan University
The demands on classroom teachers to address a variety of different subjects during the day means that some things just get left out of the curriculum. Many schools have adopted an instructional approach with supports for students that teach reading and math, with the addition of interventions to teach literacy and numeracy skills which take up more time in the instructional schedule. In some of the schools that I work with there is an additional 30 minutes a day for reading intervention plus 30 more minutes for math intervention. So, we are left with the question, how do I fit time for science or environmental education into my busy teaching schedule?
In a recent STEM Teaching tools brief on integration of science at the elementary level, it was put this way:
We do not live in disciplinary silos so why do we ask children to learn in that manner? All science learning is a cultural accomplishment and can provide the relevance or phenomena that connects to student interests and identities. This often intersects with multiple content areas. Young children are naturally curious and come to school ready to learn science. Leading with science leverages students’ natural curiosity and builds strong knowledge-bases in other content areas. Science has taken a backseat to ELA and mathematics for more than twenty years. Integration among the content areas assures that science is given priority in the elementary educational experience (STEM Teaching Tool No. 62).
Why does this matter? Educators at all levels should be aware of educational standards across subjects and be able to make meaningful connections across the content disciplines in their teaching. Building administrators look for elementary teachers to address content standards in math, science, social studies, literacy/English Language arts at a minimum plus possibly physical education, art, and music. What follows are some things that elementary teachers should consider when attempting integration of science and environmental education with other subjects.
Things to Consider for Integration
The integration of science and environmental education concepts with other subjects must be meaningful to students and connect in obvious ways to other content areas. The world is interdisciplinary while the experience for students and teachers is often disciplinary. Learning takes place both inside and outside of school. Investigations that take place outside of school are driven by people’s curiosity and play and often cut across disciplinary subjects. However, learning in school is often fragmented into different subject matter silos.
Math and reading instruction dominate the daily teaching schedule for a teacher because that is what is evaluated on standardized tests. However, subjects other than ELA and math should be kept in mind when considering integration. Social studies and the arts provide some excellent opportunities for the integration of science with other content areas. In the NGSS, the use of crosscutting concepts support students in making sense of phenomena across science disciplines and can be used to prompt student thinking. They can serve as a vehicle for teachers to see connections to the rest of their curriculum, particularly English/Language Arts and math. Crosscutting concepts are essential tools for teaching and learning science because students can understand the natural world by using crosscutting concepts to make sense of phenomena across the science disciplines. As students move from one core idea to another core idea within a class or across grade-levels, they can continually utilize the crosscutting concepts as consistent cognitive constructs for engaging in sense-making when presented with novel, natural phenomena. Natural phenomena are observable events that occur in the universe and we can use our science knowledge to explain or predict phenomena (i.e., water condensing on a glass, strong winds preceding a rainstorm, a copper penny turning green, snakes shedding their skin) (Achieve, 2016).
Generally, when I hear about science and literacy, it involves helping students comprehend their science textbook or other science reading. It is a series of strategies from the field of literacy that educators can apply in a science context. For example, teachers could ask students to do a “close reading” of a text, pulling out specific vocabulary, key ideas, and answers to text-based questions. Or, a teacher might pre-teach vocabulary, and have students write the words in sentences and draw pictures illustrating those words. Perhaps students provide one another feedback on the effectiveness of a presentation. Did you speak clearly and emphasize a few main points? Did you have good eye contact? Generally, these strategies are useful, but they’re not science specific. They could be applied to any disciplinary context. These types of strategies are often mislabeled as “disciplinary literacy.” I would advocate they are not. Disciplinary literacy is not just a new name for reading in a content area.
Scientists have a unique way of working with text and communicating ideas. They read an article or watch a video with a particular lens and a particular way of thinking about the material. Engaging with disciplinary literacy in science means approaching or creating a text with that lens. Notably, the text is not just a book. The Wisconsin DPI defines text as any communication, spoken, written, or visual, involving language. Reading like a scientist is different from having strategies to comprehend a complex text, and the texts involved have unique characteristics. Further, if students themselves are writing like scientists, their own texts can become the scientific texts that they collaboratively interact with and revise over time. In sum, disciplinary literacy in science is the confluence of science content knowledge, experience, and skills, merged with the ability to read, write, listen, and speak, in order to effectively communicate about scientific phenomena.
As a disciplinary literacy task in a classroom, students might be asked to write an effective lab report or decipher the appropriateness of a methodology explained in a scientific article. They might listen to audio clips, describing with evidence how one bird’s “song” differs throughout a day. Or, they could present a brief description of an investigation they are conducting in order to receive feedback from peers.
You can find time to teach science and environmental education and integrate it with social studies by following a few key ideas. You can teach science and social studies instead of doing writer’s workshop, choose science and social studies books for guided reading groups, and make science and social studies texts available in your classroom library.
Teach Science/Social Studies in Lieu of Writer’s Workshop: You will only need to do this one, maybe two days each week. Like most teachers, I experienced the problem of not having time to “do it all” during my first year in the classroom. My literacy coach at the time said that writer’s workshop only needs to be done three times each week, and you can conduct science or social studies lessons during that block one or two times a week. This was eye-opening, and I have followed this guidance ever since. My current principal also encouraged teachers to do science and social studies “labs” once a week during writing time! Being able to teach science or social studies during writing essentially opens up one or two additional hours each week to teach content! It is also a perfect time to do those activities that definitely take longer than 30 minutes: science experiments, research, engagement in group projects, and so forth. Although it is not the “official” writers workshop writing process, there is still significant writing involved. Science writing includes recording observations and data, writing steps to a procedure/experiment, and writing conclusions and any new information learned. “Social studies writing” includes taking research notes, writing reports, or writing new information learned in a social studies notebook. Students will absolutely still be writing every day.
Choose Science and Social Studies Texts for Guided Reading Groups: This suggestion is a great opportunity to creatively incorporate science and social studies in your weekly schedule. When planning and implementing guided reading groups, strategically pick science and social studies texts that align to your current unit of study throughout the school year. During this time, students in your guided reading groups can have yet another opportunity to absorb content while practicing reading strategies.
Make Science and Social Studies Texts Available and Accessible in Your Classroom Library: During each unit, select texts and have “thematic unit” book bins accessible to your students in a way that is best suited for your classroom setup. Display them in a special place your students know to visit when looking for books to read. When kids “book-shop” and choose their just-right books for independent reading, encourage them to pick one or two books from the “thematic unit” bin. They can read these books during independent reading time and be exposed to science and social studies content.
Elementary Integration Ideas
Kindergarten: In a kindergarten classroom, a teacher puts a stuffed animal on a rolling chair in front of the room. The teacher asks, “How could we make ‘Stuffy’ move? Share an idea with a partner”. She then circulates to hear student talk. She randomly asks a few students to describe and demonstrate their method. As students share their method, she will be pointing out terms they use, particularly highlighting or prompting the terms “push” and “pull”. Next, she has students write in their science notebooks, “A force is a push or a pull”. This writing may be scaffolded by having some students just trace these words on a worksheet glued into the notebook. Above that writing, she asks students to draw a picture of their idea, or another pair’s idea, for how to move the animal. Some student pairs that have not shared yet are then given the opportunity to share and explain their drawing. Students are specifically asked to explain, “What is causing the force in your picture?”.
For homework, students are asked to somehow show their parents a push and a pull and tell them that a push or a pull is a force. For accountability, parents could help students write or draw about what they did, or students would just know they would have to share the next day.
In class the next day, the teacher asks students to share some of the pushes and pulls they showed their parents, asking them to use the word force. She then asks students to talk with their partner about, “Why did the animal in the chair sometimes move far and sometimes not move as far when we added a force?”. She then asks some students to demonstrate and describe an idea for making the animal/chair farther or less far; ideally, students will push or pull with varying degrees of force. Students are then asked to write in their notebooks, “A big force makes it move more!” With a teacher example, as needed, they also draw an image of what this might look like.
As a possible extension: how would a scientist decide for sure which went further? How would she measure it? The class could discuss and perform different means for measurement, standard and nonstandard.
Fourth Grade Unit on Natural Resources: This was a unit completed by one group of preservice teachers for one of my classes. The four future elementary teachers worked closely in their interdisciplinary courses to design an integrated unit for a fourth-grade classroom of students. The teachers were given one social studies and one science standard to build the unit around. The team of teachers then collaborated and designed four lessons that would eventually be taught in a series of four sessions with the students. This unit worked to seamlessly integrate social studies, English language arts, math, and science standards for a fourth-grade classroom. Each future teacher took one lesson and chose a foundation subject to build their lesson upon. The first lesson was heavily based on social studies and set the stage for the future lessons as it covered the key vocabulary words and content such as nonrenewable and renewable resources. Following that, students were taught a lesson largely based on mathematics to better understand what the human carbon footprint is. The third lesson took the form of an interactive science experiment so students could see the impact of pollution on a lake, while the fourth lesson concluded with an emphasis on language arts to engage students in the creation of inventions to prevent pollution in the future and conserve the earth’s resources. Contrary to the future educators’ initial thoughts, integrating the various subject areas into one lesson came much more easily than expected! Overall, they felt that their lessons were more engaging than a single subject lesson and observed their students making connections on their own from previously taught lessons and different content areas.
Achieve. (2016). Using phenomena in NGSS-designed lessons and units. Retrieved from https://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/default/files/Using%20Phenomena%20in%20NGSS.pdf
Hill, L., Baker, A., Schrauben, M. & Petersen, A. (October 2019). What does subject matter integration look like in instruction? Including science is key! Institute for Science + Math Education. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Retrieved from: http://stemteachingtools.org/brief/62
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (n.d.) Clarifying literacy in science. Retrieved from: https://dpi.wi.gov/science/disciplinary-literacy/types-of-literacy
Jim McDonald is a Professor of Science Education at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. He teaches both preservice teachers and graduate students at CMU. He is a certified facilitator for Project WILD, Project WET, and Project Learning Tree. He is the Past President of the Council for Elementary Science International, the elementary affiliate of the National Science Teaching Association.
How do we train educators to successfully interface technologies with the outdoor experiences that they provide their students?
by R. Justin Hougham,
University of Wisconsin – Extension
Technology in education (ed tech) is constantly changing and growing in impact in classrooms across the globe. While ed tech holds great promise for closing achievement gaps in sectors of the education community, it remains yet to be seen how this will truly live up to its potential (“Brain Gains”, 2017, July 22). Ed tech is anticipated to grow to a $120 billion market by 2019, which will largely be spent in software and web services. How might we hope to see this show up in out-of-classroom field experiences?
Unaddressed in these articles and what we explore here are the specific impacts that the conversation of technology in environmental education brings as well as a case study that shares strategies we have found to be effective when an education considers the merging of hardware (inquiry tools), technology application in professional development, and web-based collaboration tools. Important questions for environmental education ask include How does this scale for education for the environment? What considerations need to be taken to ensure that investment works? How would we know if it does? How do we train educators to successfully interface technologies with the outdoor experiences that they provide their students? In an article published here in Clearing in 2012, we explored the instructional framework for merging field based science education with mobile pedagogies in the framework entitled Adventure Learning @ (Hougham, Eitel, and Miller, 2012). In the years since, this model has informed a collection of hardware kits that supports the concepts in AL@ as well as an examination of the questions outline above, these hardware kits are called Digital Observation Technology Skills (DOTS) kits.
In the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho you’ll see Steelhead, rushing rapids and hot springs that all tell the story of the landscape. Similarly, along the Wisconsin River, you will see towns, forests and fields that have a link to the industries that have shaped the state over the last 150 years. If you’re in the right spot at the right time, you can find inquisitive young people and bright yellow cases filled with gadgets taking data points and crafting Scientific Stories about the watersheds in their state. Regardless of whether it is a wild river or a small tributary outside a schoolyard- scientific stories wait to be told in these places and technology that is appropriately considered helps unlock and share these experiences.
A naturalist assists youth with a water quality test while on a canoe trip. Photo credit: DOTS participant.
In a world where technology is almighty, wielding digital literacy is practically a requirement in our understanding of just about everything. The students of today are able to navigate through web pages and apps with ease, information at their fingertips like never before. Here, we can find ourselves removed from that information, disconnected from those data sources and collections, stifling our desire to wonder and inquire more. By investing in digital tools that can enhance inquiry of the natural world, educators can bridge this divide of both information and the ability to be a primary data collector. In equipping students with touchscreens and interfaces familiar to youth of today, they are able to partake in not only real world application of scientific observation, but also experimental design and efforts moving toward the future.
Young people in Wisconsin have been contributing to the development of this idea of digital data collection and inquiry, through DOTS. The DOTS program has been developing in Wisconsin since 2014, engaging both youth and adult demographics in digital literacies, and connecting the dots from data collection to inquiry and analysis. By involving youth in the visualization and comparison of their data collections, they are able to begin to accomplish higher order learning such as developing their own hypotheses and synthesize the meaning of their findings. DOTS has been developed for students in 4th through 8th grades but has been modified for audiences in 2nd through high school, including adult learners, continuing education, and professional development.
Case studies of this application vary widely in scale, location and content. Currently DOTS kits are used in Idaho and in Wisconsin by youth to examine water quality. A full-scale implementation is underway currently in Wisconsin to connect youth from many different watersheds. Held this past August, the Wisconsin Water Youth Stories Summit brought together students from across the state of Wisconsin who are interested in not only environment and ecosystems, but also water quality and sharing their “water stories”. Supported by an EPA grant, this Summit was a culminating experience for many of the youth, getting to collect and share their findings over their 3 day period at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center (Grant Number: EPA-00E02045). This two year grant has trained and equipped educators with DOTS tool with an emphasis on water quality monitoring. Throughout the year, youth from around Wisconsin collect data and share their findings with others in real time on the web. At the Water Stories Summit, each group brought their DOTS kit to explore the environment and compare collected data sets. This experience not only brought together young scientists with a vested interest in the future of water, but also allowed students to share stories of local water quality that affects their own communities around the state.
A student uses a water quality test to find the amount of phosphorus at a Wisconsin River location. Photo credit: DOTS participant.
Many shared stories about urban run-off pollution, such as lawn fertilizers and road salt, E. coli contamination, and they discussed the ways in which humans alter natural waterways. At the end of their experience one student said they learned that, “science is being precise and unbiased about nature and numbers.” Another student said of a different Upham experience, “We went to Blackhawk Island for our project. The tools helped us take photos of what was under the rock. The tools help to see what animals were living there. We came up with a lot of new questions after we did our research and we can’t wait to find out things like, if the temperature affects what animals we will find living under a rock, and what animals live at different depths.” Through these collaborations of student generated data, participants were able to make connections between each other and drive further inquiry questions such as how to improve water use and consumption, and how the water affects all other life.
While the kits themselves are certainly an enhancement to a variety of curriculum, the training that accompanies the deployment is just as important as the tools themselves. Educators that partner on DOTS projects are supported with (1) Equipment, (2) Training and (3) a Web platform for collaboration. It is the interrelationship between the inquiry tools, inquiry methods and inquiry artifacts that provide the support for transformative outdoor science experiences.
A DOTS kit consists of a select set of digital tools to equip youth and educators with everything they need to take a basic data set of an ecosystem and microclimate. Contained in a water-proof, heavy-duty case, the tools selected are chosen for their utility, cost effectiveness, and ease of use. Any suite of tools can be selected for an individual’s classroom purposes, this is first and foremost, a framework to scaffold inquiry and observational skills. DOTS users gain field experience with hand held weather stations, thermal imagers, digital field microscopes, GPS units, and cameras to contribute to local citizen science monitoring (Hougham and Kerlin, 2016). A DOTS program training is facilitated by program staff and has evolved over time to include these six goals. While these are used in DOTS, nearly any technology implementation would benefit from these goals being outlined.
- Establish functional and technical familiarity with DOTS Kit hardware
- Orientation to DOTS Kit web interface, data uploading, and site visualizations
- Examination of mobile, digital pedagogies in historical as well as applied contexts
- Advance instructional capacities in application of observation and inquiry facilitation applicable to experiences outside the classroom
- Production of digital artifacts that contribute to Scientific Storytelling
- Facilitation of initial curricular design considerations for integrating kits into existing programs
After the training, educators have access to a suite of tools that can be lent out for deeper science connections in outdoor spaces. Further, trained educators can use grab-and-go lessons from the project website to launch the concepts with their students and watch videos produced and hosted on the site that provide further instruction on applications of the tools.
Lastly, a web-based collaboration platform is hosted to support the development of additional inquiry. To continue this mission of enhancing student inquiry and promoting collaboration, data sets can be uploaded to an online public access platform. As users enter their data online, the map displays in real time the coordinates and information of each data point. Viewers can easily navigate a Google map with their and other’s data points for comparison and post-experience observation. This immediate viewership not only falls in line with today’s student’s understanding of a fast-paced, immediately available world, but also allows no stagnation in the learning process as inquiry can continue instantaneously. Through engagement by use of digital tools collecting data in the field, reflection on process and methods through data entry into the web-based model, and through analysis and refinement of hypothesis for further inquiry, students take ownership of their data and have a voice in sharing their discoveries with others. These inquiries have been qualified in the DOTS programming through use of a “scientific story”.
The scientific story helps to build connection between qualitative and quantitative data and their respective ways of understanding. As humans we have told stories for millennia to entertain, educate, and remember. Combining these elements of storytelling with the scientific method of developing hypotheses and data collection, a story is created to share. These stories are generally 3-5 sentences and include photos taken by camera and tools such as the handheld microscope and thermal imager. In taking a closer look with digital tools, a deeper appreciation is gained and honed in on through these scientific stories and it is through these words that we can harness stories in what they do best: share. They can be digitized and easily shared across social media platforms, creating interest in the environment and science in family and community members.
This story written while at Upham woods during the aforementioned Water Stories Summit, and describes the location and inquires the youth had.
We investigated two different locations as a part of the water study blitz at Upham Woods. The first location was the Fishing shore on the Wisconsin River, and the second location was a stagnant inlet only 100 feet away. We noticed several differences between the two locations. We wanted to know more about the animal life in both locations. What kind of animals live in these habitats that we couldn’t see during the blitz? What would we find if we studied the location where the Fishing Shore and Inlet connect?
This story highlights the questions students wanted to investigate further and spurred their desire to continue comparing locations in the context of animal life. Another story from the Water Stories Summit illustrates a group of high school students making connections between ideas and places.
When doing the data blitz at camp, we tested water for all kinds of factors (pH, Conductivity, Salinity and others). The cool thing we noticed was the differences in PH levels of the water that equaled a 9.49 level that makes water a base. This reminded us of what would happen if water had a unbalanced and non neutral PH level, that was out of control… One example of this is a sulphur pit, like in Yellowstone national park. The pH of this water is as low as 1.2, which is almost equivalent to battery acid.
By encouraging students to develop their own scientific story, they create a deeper connection with that place and nature in general. This connection evolves to a jumping off point for further inquiry and hypothesis development which can be fleshed out into full empirical science studies or harnessed into environmental service projects. Additionally, as data sets can be shared, these students in Wisconsin can use the data collected in Idaho to further their hypotheses and promote scientific collaboration.
A naturalist teaches an Escuela Verde student how to take a water quality reading. Photo credit: DOTS participant.
Throughout the use of this approach research suggests that digital tools should be adopted in environmental education whenever possible (Hougham et al., 2016). To assess participant perspectives, DOTS uses a modified Common Measures instrument (National 4-H Council, 2017) to examine student attitudes towards technology and towards nature. In a 2015 study conducted by the DOTS project research team (Hougham et al., 2016), students where engaged in two iterations of an environmental studies curriculum- one was with traditional analogue toolsets and one was with digital toolsets. In an analysis of pre/post-test evaluation responses (n= 135), students showed statistically significant and positive shifts in attitudes towards technology, the use of technology outdoors, and towards investigating nature. In a review of the data from DOTS users for both profession development and youth workshops (n=71), it was found that 97% of participants of all ages agreed or strongly agreed that they “better understand how science, technology, or engineering can solve problems after using the DOTS tools”, and 89% said they agreed or strongly agreed that they “liked learning about this subject”.
This survey data provides insight on scaffolding and curiosity building techniques. In this way, it was found that lessons on observation were most useful when they began with broad scale observations and students were invited to make more focused observations. This system allows for students to explore a part of the world that they find interesting, making them more invested in a narrative authentic to them. The practice of up close observation is nothing new in environmental education, notably Adventures with a Hand Lens was published in 1962, advancing outdoor science instruction to engage the learner in their own investigations of the world up close. Today, this observation scaffolds easily onto data collection, with students studying parts of the ecosystem that they find interesting with encouragement to find how these seemingly individual pieces coalesce into a larger system.
In moving environmental education into the digital age, educators should look to empower youth with the tools and responsibility to examine their surroundings, and in encouraging youth to take and use technology outside, educators can capitalize on students collecting their own data sets to develop deeper, more meaningful inquiry questions. And when they can begin developing their own questions that they want to answer rather than following a worksheet or handout, the exploration becomes that much more desirable and satiating. Those young people wielding handheld weather stations and thermal imagers on the Salmon River or on the Wisconsin may appear to be kids collecting some information for science project, but don’t be fooled, the next generation of scientists and scientific thinkers is out there, already developing their inquiries into the natural world.
- Brain Gains. (2017, July 22). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21725313-how-science-learning-can-get-best-out-edtech-together-technology-and-teachers-can
- Headstrom, R.. (1962). Adventures with a Hand Lens.
- Hougham, R. J., Eitel, K. B., & Miller, B. G. (2013). AL@: Combining the strengths of adventure learning and place based education. 2012 CLEARING Compendium (pp 38-41).
- Hougham, J. and Kerlin, S. (2017). To Unplug or Plug In. Green Teacher. Available at: https://greenteacher.com/to-unplug-or-plug-in/.
- Hougham, R., Nutter, M., Nussbaum, A., Riedl, T. and Burgess, S. (2016). Engaging at-risk populations outdoors, digitally: researching youth attitudes, confidence, and interest in technology and the outdoors. Presented at the 44th Annual International Symposium on Experiential Education Research, Minneapolis, MN.
- National 4-H Council. (2017). Common Measures 2.0.
- Technology is transforming what happens when a child goes to school. (2017, July 22). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21725285-reformers-are-using-new-software-personalise-learning-technology-transforming-what-happens
Dr. R. Justin Hougham is faculty at the University of Wisconsin- Extension where he supports the delivery of a wide range of science education topics to K-12 students, volunteers, youth development professionals, graduate students, and in-service teachers. Justin’s scholarship is in the areas of youth development, place-based pedagogies, STEM education, AL, and education for sustainability.
Marc Nutter manages the facility of Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center located in Wisconsin Dells, WI which serves over 11,000 youth and adults annually. With the research naturalist team at Upham Woods, Marc implements local, state, and federal grants around Wisconsin aimed to get youth connected to their local surroundings with the aid of technology that enhances observation.
Megan Gilbertson is currently a school psychology graduate student at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville. While working at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center, she collaborated on grant funded projects to create and curate online data platforms for educational groups and facilitate programs for both youth and adults on the integration of technology with observation and inquiry in environmental education.
Quinn Bukouricz is a research naturalist involved with technology-integrated programming statewide, funded on grants and program revenues. He is also responsible the creation and care of programmatic equipment which includes the “Digital Observation Technology Skills” kits, and the implementation of grants.
An Educator’s Guide to Stewardship
by Breanna Caruso
Click on the title to view PDF version of article.
Photo by Jim Martin
Why Environmental Educators Shouldn’t
Give Up Hope
by Jacob Rodenburg
I’m trying hard not to get discouraged. Being an environmental educator in today’s world feels like you are asked to stop a rushing river armed only with a teaspoon.
There are so many issues to be worried about—from climate change to habitat destruction, from oceans of plastic to endangered species, from the loss of biodiversity to melting glaciers. And the list goes on. The field itself has become ever more siloed and compartmentalized over time, leaving schools, parents, and outdoor programs with little unified guidance. How do we teach kids—in a hopeful and empowering way—about today’s formidable challenges? And how do we translate this increase in knowledge about environmental issues into action?
Children today are given few opportunities to be outside. In a school system rife with worry about liability, it is simply easier to stay indoors. Insurance rates are cheaper if kids are contained, accounted for, and “safe” inside.
Yet the safety argument needs to be turned on its head: It is unsafe NOT to take children outside, not to provide them with rich immersion time in the living world. Leaving kids indoors cuts them off from the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a living being that shares a world with other living beings. Children have a right to experience the joy of discovering the richness, complexity, and diversity of life.
Children’s disconnect from their surroundings and their environment does not stem from a lack of desire. As an outdoor educator, I have spent many happy hours with school children tramping through wetlands, lifting up rotten logs, and canoeing through still waters hearing comments like “Wow! This is cool!” To fulfill children’s need to connect, the field must develop a coordinated and developmentally appropriate approach—one that is rooted in what kids are ready to learn at each age.
Building Age-appropriate Environmental Education
Children learn about the natural world in vastly different ways as they grow up. Environmentalists are keen to teach children about global warming, pollution, species depletion, and a whole range of admittedly important issues, but they forget that younger children aren’t cognitively, perhaps even psychically, ready for this.
Young children are, however, always ready to love the natural world. Connecting with nature is about establishing a relationship and building intimacy. What is the story of the land near where a child lives? How did that oak get that large hole in it? Who lives under this decomposing log? If we think about tending to and nurturing relationships, then we’ll remember to take kids to the same places over and over again. We’ll help them find their magic places, their stories of that place and, more importantly, their place within that place. We will teach them the power and possibility of restoring nature in their school yards, their backyards, and in nearby parks.
Kids connect best to places through stories and faces. A teacher once shared a story with me about a mystery bird that had built a nest in a parking lot. After doing a bit of research, the children found out that this bird was called a killdeer. They watched the bird as she did her broken wing trick (to lead predators away from the nest). Over the days, they watched her scoop out her nest and sit upon it. They cordoned off an area with yellow emergency tape to protect her from cars. They watched her raise her young. This was their killdeer, and they would have done anything to protect her. The students became involved in her unfolding story, and the killdeer suddenly had a face. In a way, she revealed herself to them.
Another teaching tip: young children love micro environments. A friend of mine told me about a time when he took his children, 4 and 5 years old, up to an incredible view of a valley. He asked, “Isn’t this beautiful?” and watched in amazement as his kids hunkered down and stared at the ants scurrying at their feet instead.
Finally, young children adore discovery. It is the art of an educator to know what to say and what to refrain from saying. If I had a job description, it would be simply this: to help reveal wonder and cultivate awe. I take my students to a place called Salamander Alley and say, “I wonder what’s under that log?” If they find a salamander, there is a palpable feeling of joy in the discovery. Had I said, “Let’s go find some salamanders. They’re probably under this log,” the effect would have been completely different. When a child finds something, I let them own that discovery. I honor and celebrate it. The power of this kind of learning can never be undervalued.
Neil Everenden writes that we do not end at our finger tips. Instead, we radiate out into the landscape. We are inextricably bound up in the processes of life. With every breath in and out we are part of the natural systems that surround us. Our role today is to guide our children, in ways that resonate with their interests and development, to realize this connection.
Where to Go From Here
We can create nature-rich communities where kids feel a deep and abiding love for the living systems that we all are immersed in. Eventually, children will learn even to go beyond sustaining and to engage in acts of regeneration. That is where true hope resides.
Here’s hoping we can all coordinate our efforts throughout every age and stage of a child’s development. We need to work collaboratively with schools, parents, community groups, faith groups, governments, and non-governmental agencies to help future generations love, learn about, care for, protect, and enhance the environment. Indeed the future of the planet depends upon it.
Jacob Rodenburg is Executive Director of Camp Kawartha and The Camp Kawartha Outdoor Education Centre, located in Ontario, Canada. He is a contributing author in the Worldwatch Institute’s EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.