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The Pros and Cons of Outdoor Science Education

The benefits of taking our science students out of the classroom for an outdoor activity are many ... BUT, you better be prepared and super organized!

If I ask my students what the term “environment” means to them, I am going to get a wide variety of answers.  Many of them will automatically think of a beautiful setting in nature, such as a bubbling creek through a forest, a field of wildflowers, or a stand of shimmering evergreen trees along a mountainside.  However, the “environment” is so much more.  It is everything that exists around us.  It is the natural world as well as all of the things that have been produced by humans.  The environment is an incredibly complex web of interactions between the living and the nonliving components of Earth.  I'd wager to say that most of our students pass through their "environment" on a daily basis without ever noticing that "things" are going on.  They may frequent a public park or live on a lake or pond, but rarely do they notice the complex web of interactions that are taking place right before their eyes.

When I go outside my mind is racing a mile a minute.  Even if I am walking across the parking lot to enter my local Wal Mart I am going to notice a bird singing or that the clouds are particularly fluffy.  Admittedly, I am a big nature nerd, but I get so much joy from experiencing nature, and I want my students to experience this as well.

The million dollar question is, "Can I get my students to think like me?"  

The students sitting in our classrooms today are going to be the decision makers (and voters) of tomorrow.  The bottom line is that Planet Earth needs our protection.  We have to teach our students about the natural world, and about the things that damage the natural world.  And the first step to effective environmental education is simple ... We have to get our students to NOTICE what is going on around them.  

How do we accomplish getting teenagers to notice nature when that is probably the last thing swirling around in their teen-aged brain?  The answer is:  Take them outside and force them to notice.  Oh, don't be fooled by their initial excitement when you announce to the class that the next few days will be spent outdoors.  They are already thinking that this is going to a welcome holiday away from the classroom setting!  You, the instructor, will have to be organized.  You must have a solid plan and procedure for what the students will be expected to do.  And you must give enough weight to the grade that it grabs their attention.

Let's think carefully about the pros and cons of this venture before we begin.

  • The first is obvious:  Students love to go outside!
  • The ecological concepts we teach in the classroom can be reinforced by a quality outdoor activity.
  • Students practice the skill of making good observations.
  • It teaches and reinforces a different sort of data collection than they normally experience in a laboratory setting.
  • An outdoor activity will probably involve drawing and mapping which will appeal to many of the students.
  • It teaches students to pay attention and notice the world around them.
  • Instilling a love of nature in a student will hopefully lead to an adult who wants to protect nature.
  • The benefits of group work and the reinforcement of social skills are certainly life lessons that will be utilized long after the subject matter is forgotten. 
  • It doesn't matter if you live in the city or in the country.  If you have plants, then you have an ecosystem that can be studied.
  • It can be time consuming:  Can you give up several days to carry out one project?
  • Classroom management:  Will the students behave outdoors?
Tips on Getting Started:  
  • Know what you want to accomplish.  Have a well thought-out plan with concrete objectives.  Don't take students outside and "wing it." That is a recipe for disaster.
  • Have specific goals in mind when designing your activity.  Know what you want the students to learn from doing the activity.
  • Make the assignment an important part of their grade so that most of the students will be willing to do quality work.

I like to do an activity that I call "Exploring an Ecosystem" in which I have my students study and analyze the physical features of an ecosystem, the living organisms within the ecosystem, and the interactions between these two components.  It involves marking off an area with stakes and string that measures 5m x 5m.  Students are required to work in close-knit groups to draw a detailed ecosystem site map and provide a color-coded key for everything in their ecosystem.  The students will identify the living organisms in their ecosystem and answer a detailed set of 29 questions designed to prompt them in making good observations.  Students will make food chains and food webs using the organisms in their ecosystem.  Students look for abiotic factors, biotic factors, evidence of competition, camouflage, predator/prey relationships, limiting factors, etc.

My objectives may seem simple, but they are actually quite involved:  
   The student will survey an ecosystem to map out the physical characteristics of the land and to identify the living organisms that inhabit the ecosystem.
   The student will describe and analyze the various relationships that exist within the ecosystem.

To ensure that my students accomplish my objectives I provide them with a set of handouts that provide clear instructions, safety precautions, and detailed analysis questions.

Click on image to view this resource in my TpT store.

Make sure that the students read the lab handouts, including all analysis questions, before beginning the project.  The questions are designed to guide the students in their observations of the selected ecosystem.  Students will often miss interactions that are occurring simply because they do not know to look for them.  Many of the questions used in this activity will prompt students into making good observations.

Click this image to view my Ecosystems PowerPoint.
I highly recommend that students receive prior instruction before tackling an outdoor project. In order to complete this ecosystems study, students should be familiar with key concepts in ecology. A few days of classroom instruction are needed to make sure that the students benefit from the days spent out of the classroom.  If the students are unprepared, the outdoor activity can quickly degenerate into playtime and goofing around. The benefits of outdoor learning are many, and the negatives are few, provided that you have a quality assignment, concrete learning objectives, and a good classroom management plan in place.

Have fun teaching outdoors!!


  1. I would love to do something like this. The closest thing we have to an "outdoor area" is a local fountain, with some fully grown planted beds. Unfortunately, it is also a big homeless hangout. Would this still be possible there? Do you have any suggestions for an urban setting?

    1. Hi Erica,
      I think the planted flower beds and fountain will work fine as long as you feel it is okay to take your students there. Are there any areas in the schoolyard that could be utilized? Or a roof top garden?