How to Use the Outdoors to Teach Science
The Importance of Out of Classroom Learning
Have you ever sat in a lesson on a summer's day, staring wistfully out of the window wanting to be anywhere but behind a desk? With a preoccupation on grades, passing exams and preparing for college, science lessons can easily descend into "teaching to the test." Not only is this boring, but it neglects the wider development of our students at all ages. As a Biology teacher, I know from experience that the outdoors can engage even the most disaffected of students. Some of my favourite lessons take advantage of the 'outdoor classroom' We live in an amazing world - it is time that we used this to inspire our students; out of classroom learning not only enriches the curriculum, but also gets pupils exercise, enhances academic attainment and - most importantly of all - it's fun!
"The world outside the school is richly inspiring, constantly re-energising what takes place within the classroom. It is the source of all our learning – about our history, about our culture, about our place in the natural world and our relationships with each other." Out of Classroom Learning, ASE
The outdoors has a history of inspiring some incredible scientific characters to pursue science: Charles Darwin was inspired by a family trip to Wales; Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse fondly recalls counting spiders webs in his garden; Prof. Steve Jones (President of the Association for Science Education) decided to pursue Biology after a field trip.
10 Outdoor Lesson Ideas
- How does pollution affect lichen species in our local area?
- How do habitats change over time?
- What habitats can be found in my local area?/ What makes a habitat?/What is a habitat?
- What building materials are used in my school and why?
- What affects the height of a water rocket?
- Design, build and monitor a weather station for your school - can be combined with a journal-keeping activity
- Conduct a littering/pollution/ recycling survey of your school (can involve interviews with the reprographics department)
- How many examples of forces can you find around the school?
- Design your own constellations (best done in a very dark place well away from city lights)
- Conduct a bug hunt!
What is Out of Classroom Learning?
Out of Classroom learning is anything that takes place - you guessed it - out of the classroom. Even those without expansive fields, ecoponds, vegetable gardens and playgrounds can still set up window boxes, ant-farms and aquariums outside of the classroom. It includes trips to wildlife parks, bird sanctuaries, zoos, conservation groups and beaches. Every home and school, no matter how urban it is, has access to the natural world - plants growing in cracks in the masonry, walls are often covered in lichens (species depend on local pollution levels - something that could be investigated), puddles can be sampled for bacterial content.
How to Plan Outdoors Lessons
If you are sold on the benefits of using the outdoors to teach science, you may be thinking where you should start. First off, you need an idea - check out the links section for some pre-made lesson plans - and then you need to plan for managing learning outdoors. Next you need the general outdoors toolkit:
- Whistle - to get attention
- Laminated instruction sheets with questions on...differentiated, of course.
- Mini First aid kit...just in case
- Antiseptic hand wash gel - saves washing hands when you get back to the classroom
- Wet wipes - see above
- Spare pencils and clipboards - pens smudge.
- Disposable cameras - cheap as you can find in case a group wants some photographic evidence. Plus, it doesn't matter if these get wet!
Obviously, depending on your activity, you may need more specific equipment such as pooters, quadrats, sample trays, cotton buds and agar plates (for pond sampling), or even simple outdoor microscopes.
Managing Lessons Outside
Managing behaviour outside of the classroom requires a bit of forethought. It will help if you discuss ground rules before you set off - make sure you have a back up plan (like a time-out space) if some pupils take advantage of this new found 'freedom.' Also remember to:
- Prepare for wet weather. This doesn't have to put paid to a well planned lesson: ask students to bring rainjackets and suitable footwear.
- Divide up the class into groups. You can keep the more 'interesting' characters separate this way. Divide up any resources before the lesson for ease of distribution: you may find it helpful to make resource 'bags'
- Designate a team leader for each group - give them a copy of the instructions, disposable camera and a stopwatch.
- Make each group responsible for the safe and timely return of ALL equipment. This will save you huge amounts of time.
- Consider conducting review activities and dismissing the group from the site. Returning to the classroom wastes valuable learning time, and allows you to interact with the environment for your plenary activities.