Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Meet Us outside! A Field Ecology Course to Engage All Students in Exploring Environmental Issues

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Meet Us outside! A Field Ecology Course to Engage All Students in Exploring Environmental Issues

Article excerpt


An elective science course with a waiting list? In 2005, the administration at my high school let me design and teach a semester-long field ecology course as a pilot. Only 15 students signed up, but I was not discouraged--I had a plan. I knew that once word got out about field ecology--a hands-on course with an emphasis on the "field"--students would be drawn to it.

Now, more than 45 juniors and seniors try to register for the course each year. Valedictorians and other high achievers are challenged to do well, as are some of the school's most at-risk students. Many who are not typically successful in a classroom setting excel in this field-based environmental education (EE) course. Even better, students' attitudes about science--and often school--begin to shift, and many go on to take three or four science electives in their junior and senior years.

In designing and teaching field ecology, I channel my passion for the validity and power of teaching place-based, experiential EE in a public school setting. My students become involved in long-term scientific research, policy-based role-playing, and service-learning projects. This article describes a few successful activities that I have used with diverse learners and considerations for teachers interested in developing a similar course or increasing the fieldwork in existing courses. Although our rural location does facilitate our logistics, my experiences at Lisbon High School and with Project Learning Tree (PLT), the Maine Audubon Society, and Utah State University, have shown me that just about any site has some outdoor element that can be used to promote learning.


Field-based learning

Environmental education "is a process that aims to develop an environmentally literate citizenry" (NAAEE 2004). It is an effective way to engage students of all levels and has improved learning outcomes and achievement in science and other subjects (Lieberman and Hoody 1998). Worldwide, students report that schools are a key place for learning about environmental issues (PISA 2009).

Field investigations "are designed to answer an investigative question through the collection of evidence and the communication of results; they contribute to scientific knowledge by describing natural systems, noting differences in habitats, and identifying environmental issues and trends" (Ryken et al. 2007, p. 1). As noted by Ryken and colleagues (2007), students grapple with such questions as: What defines my environment? What are the various parts and interrelationships in this ecosystem? and How has human behavior influenced our environment?

Teachers have an overwhelming array of environmental materials and curricula from which to choose. The challenge is to draw from educationally sound resources that are practicable to implement. I have adapted many activities in this course--and in my biology and marine biology courses--from PLT and Project Wet (Figure 1, p. 42; see "On the web").

Investigations and inquiry: The outdoors

Lisbon is a small town in Maine along the Androscoggin River. As in many New England communities, a textile mill was once the town's major employer. The mill closed in the 1980s, and Lisbon has since struggled economically. Although Maine has both forestry and fishery industries, neither has much of a presence here. Many Lisbon High School students, like their counterparts throughout the country, do not feel connected to the natural world around them.

Before I became a classroom teacher, I had some field experience with students--primarily in extracurricular settings, camps, or special events--but I really wanted to make outdoor learning a regular part of the school day. I started holding my biology classes outside, but with everything else going on, could only do so every few weeks. Still, I saw how "doing" science outdoors resonated, even with students who normally disengaged from traditional classroom and lab settings. …

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