For many years I have supported using the outdoors as a classroom to teach environmental and marine science. Because I live and teach on Cape Cod it is relatively easy to teach students the basic concepts of ecology and to encourage them to further their studies back in the classroom.
The seashore is a living laboratory full of wonders and opportunities for exploration. These kinds of hands-on experiences cannot be easily done in a classroom. In the field the students get to see, smell, touch, and hear the dynamic nature of a changing shoreline. Their direct acquaintance with the plants and animals at a beach enhances their understanding of ecological relationships such as the links in a food web and the effects of the physical environment on the distribution of life forms.
Even those students who live close to the ocean love the chance to explore and discover the different marine habitats available. But to those kids who rarely get to the seashore the experience is even more exciting and wondrous. It’s extremely important that students develop their observational skills. I always ask them to describe the different shells, crabs, and seaweeds using their own words. Then I introduce to them the correct scientific terminology that matches their descriptions. Holding, measuring, and describing their discoveries increases the learning retention rate. The students have direct contact with the plants, animals, and habitats and this helps develop an understanding of the interdependence of living things with their environment.
We also need to make these experiences as student-centered as possible. I have the kids work as teams each with a specific task that they will later share with the whole class. They are involved with the planning of the site visit. What equipment will you need? How will you record your observations? How can we “read” what’s going on at the beach?
I am concerned that too many children lack access to outdoor education. They get the bulk of their information through electronic media which is an excellent supplemental source, but is no substitute for the outdoors. This remote relationship does not foster a greater appreciation for the natural world. Talk to any scientist who works in this area and you will hear many stories about their field work and experiences. It’s these direct encounters with the natural world that encourage, motivate, and inspire those who make environmental studies a career. And we need an environmentally literate population to solve our many problems.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.