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Secondary Science Outdoors

Originally appears in the Summer 2017 issue

Why do high school students have fewer outdoor experiences than their younger counterparts? Some teachers cite a lack of resources while others point to the sheer amount of content needing to be covered in each course leaving limited time, if any at all, to bring their teenage students outdoors. Despite the obstacles, there are numerous benefits to combining the outdoors with classroom learning when teaching teens. Outdoor settings are ideal for cross-curricular learning that can help students make connections, enhance their skills across different subjects, and renew their enthusiasm.[i] Students can also develop their interpersonal skills by getting to know their class and teacher better through sharing outdoor experiences.

To better understand how outdoor learning might work in high schools, we spoke with five high school science teachers in Alberta, Canada who frequently use outdoor settings to engage their students. These teachers were chosen based on their use of the outdoors, and we found that they have the following things in common. For these teachers, the outdoors is viewed as an educational setting where students can apply their knowledge and develop a scientific lens to understand the world outside of school. Socially, they feel classroom dynamics improve after returning from an outdoor experience. For example, instead of students competing with one another, they help each other. In turn, the learning atmosphere becomes more positive and the classroom is more of a learning community rather than a group of individual learners. As well, each of these teachers uses outdoor settings to complement indoor learning, rather than to replace or displace it.

To help empower other high school educators, we asked each of these science teachers to share outdoor activities they find particularly effective. In the following, we provide a brief general description of how to do each activity with the understanding that each teacher has their own style of teaching and not all activities will be replicated identically. These examples are meant as a starting point to alter in whatever way the inspired teacher reading this article sees fit, rather than a specific set of “how to” instructions for each activity.

Comparing ecosystems with water samples

Students are brought to the Meanook Biological Research Station in Athabasca, Alberta, where professionals guide them to collect water samples and use the equipment. For example, they use the Winkler method to measure and compare dissolved oxygen, and specialized equipment to measure chlorophyll across different lake settings. Students are excited to use the professional equipment. For teachers who do not have access to a biological research station, an alternative is to use school equipment with any two differing bodies of water or two different locations on one body of water, such as a creek.ii There are a couple of seasonal variations for this investigation. During the winter one teacher has their students collect samples by drilling through frozen lake surfaces. They then bring these water samples back to the classroom where they analyze and compare them. This activity also shows students that not all creatures are sleeping during these months, and they are surprised to find signs of life during the winter season. During warmer seasons, students collect water samples from lakes with different amounts of human activity (i.e. a pristine lake with little human activity to one with a lot of human activity). They can compare the amount of dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll, type and amount of bacteria, micro-organisms, plant life, and other ecosystem characteristics.

Photo evidence of secondary succession

Start the lesson by asking students to imagine what their city would look like if humans stepped away for a hundred years. Then, bring them outside to find evidence to support their speculations. For example, opportunistic plants may already be growing in unexpected cracks and moss may cover walls and other structures. The purpose of the question is for students to explore the processes of succession by making careful observations in their local environment. This activity can be completed as a group, using a class set of digital cameras (smartphones or iPads will also work). Or it may be assigned individually, where students bring photographic evidence from their independent explorations outside of school hours. The teacher who described this activity is usually surprised at what students find, for example, weeds growing out of the side of a building or a little tree growing on top of a shed behind the school.

Environment’s role in natural selection

Sprinkle a package of coloured toothpicks (green, blue, yellow, red) that have been pre-counted, outside on the school field (the amount of toothpicks and the colour distribution will depend on the package purchased). Start the lesson by showing students pictures of different creatures that are considered to be prey. Tell students that they are the predators and must go outside to look for their prey, the coloured toothpicks. Working individually or in groups, students will have a fixed time, such as three or five minutes, to find as many prey as possible. Back in the classroom, students record the amount of prey they or their team found and the class results are pooled. For discussion, ask students why they found almost all of the yellow and red but few of the blue and green toothpicks. This will lead to a discussion on natural selection favouring camouflage, such as green toothpicks on a green background (grass).

River studies

Students raft on a river with RiverWatch, a non-profit group in Alberta that does science activities in outdoor aquatic settings. (Teachers elsewhere might find a similar organization in their area. Failing that, adapt this activity by collecting samples from different spots along a river and doing the same kinds of tests.) RiverWatch takes students upstream from a waste water treatment plant to test various water quality indicators. Students then take a tour inside the waste water treatment plant. Next, they are taken rafting downstream from the plant where they do further testing. Back in the classroom, students examine the collected samples in the following ways: identify and interpret invertebrate data (effects of pollution, pollution tolerance); abiotic and biotic factors that increase and decrease dissolved oxygen; and determine the health of a river ecosystem based on the amounts of dissolved oxygen, pH levels, ammonia nitrogen concentration levels.[ii] During the trip, students are quite excited about rafting to different spots along the river.

While the above activities are fairly structured, one of the teachers we spoke with views the outdoors as the perfect setting to stimulate the natural curiosity of students. He feels it is important to let students experience the outdoors “naturally”, i.e. without completing a formal investigation or any worksheets.

Appreciating fossilized evidence of evolution

On a day trip, students experience the Royal Tyrrell Museum (a paleontology museum focusing on dinosaur fossils) in Drumheller, Alberta and explore the sedimentary rock formations of the surrounding Badlands. Teachers outside of this area may want to look for similar museums close to their city. Another suggestion would be to contact the paleontology or similar department at your local university or an informal science institution that may be able to provide some fossil samples for students to look at. iv In this case, students first develop a chronological sense of evolution through the indoor display, organized by chronological time from the pre-Cambrian to the Cenozoic. This is followed by a visual exploration of the chronological strata exposed at the Badlands. Afterwards students have a better understanding of chronological time. The students looked forward to this trip and in the following days they told other students about it, and shared photos and stories on social media.

Although the previous five examples strongly emphasize biology, teachers of other sciences may also incorporate the outdoors in their teaching. For instance, we spoke with a physics teacher who seeks engaging outdoor experiences to complement what is being taught in her classroom.

Astrophysical observations

On a day trip, students visit the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, an observation station in the rural foothills that is part of the University of Calgary, Alberta. (Observatories in your area may provide similar services, or setting up your own telescopes may be a worthwhile alternative.) Local astronomy clubs often offer nighttime sessions for students. At Rothney, professors and graduate students explain the architecture of the observatory and its surroundings, providing demonstrations, and answering questions. Students are often surprised that the observatory is mostly one big telescope and a lot of empty space (needed to rotate the telescope). The scientists working at the observatory show the students recent pictures of objects and stars. This leads to a discussion on the different types of stars and the different objects that can be found in the night sky. Another surprising observation for students is how little light is in the observatory.  The roads leading up to the observatory purposefully do not have any lights in order to eliminate light pollution when looking at the night sky, making it perfect for nocturnal viewing through the smaller telescopes in the field as well. The students then get a chance to explore various pieces of equipment, such as mirascope dome mirrors. Students place coins inside of these and are puzzled trying to figure out why it appears as if the coins are sitting on top of the mirascope.

After such a trip, help students use concepts from their course to make sense of what they saw at the observatory. For instance, examine how the reflection of concave mirrors creates the effect that they observed with the coins. Students can also solve relevant mathematical problems, such as calculating the angle of reflection and refraction and the refractive indices of various pieces of equipment. Because the trip occurred early in the term, the teacher found that the students used their experience at the observatory as a basis for their learning and could readily relate their learning to later lessons. While at the observatory, the students also became interested in the career of an astrophysicist, asking what is it that an astrophysicist does exactly, and what program and courses they have to take in university to become one.

While most of the above teachers looked for clear curricular links to make the most of precious field trip time, one described the following activity that was outside the scope of fulfilling curricular plans.

Relaxation in the outdoors

Take students outside and ask each student to find their own tree. Students are not allowed to bring any devices with them. Start by telling them that sitting by a tree relaxes you and research has shown that when people sit by a tree, their heart rate slows. Let them know that they will be sitting there in silence for ten minutes and afterwards they will return to class. The teacher who described this activity found that when students returned to class, they were calmer and ready to work. As such, he now makes this a weekly part of his class routine. Some of his students have even reported taking this technique home to use when studying or feeling stressed.

[i] Davidson, L. (2001). Qualitative research and making meaning from adventure: A case study of boys’ experiences of outdoor education at school. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning. 1(2), 11-20.

Foster, A., & Linney, G. (2007). Reconnecting children through outdoor education: A research summary. Toronto: The Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

ii Schon, J. A., Eitel, K. B., Bingaman, D., Miller, B. G., & Rittenburg, R. A. (2014). Big Project, Small.

iii The RiverWatch Institute of Alberta. (2016). How to Monitor. Retrieved from

iv Walsh, L., & Straits, W. (2014). Creating a quality partnership with informal science institutions.

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Julieta de los Santos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Secondary Education, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Her research examines how and why high school biology teachers incorporate the outdoors. Dr. Man-Wai Chu is an Assistant Professor at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary in Alberta. Her research focuses on using innovative assessments, such as interactive digital environments, to measure students’ performance-based skills in the classroom and on standardized tests. Dr. Marie-Claire Shanahan is an Associate Professor of Science Education at Werklund School of Education. She studies the ways that people of all ages come to understand what it means to participate in scientific communities and activities.