Jun. 1, 2019

Experiential learning, meaningful experiences

Decades ago, I was the science facilitator for an experiential school-within-a school, youth-at-risk program for 8th graders.  I started the year with an aquatic investigation of our watershed.  We began at our neighborhood storm-drainage bayou which drained into the San Jacinto River then Galveston Bay and ended in the Gulf of Mexico over a period of 6 weeks.  We collected water quality data and examined the biodiversity of these bodies of water.  After we collected data on the beach, I allowed the students to swim and play in the ocean.  One young lady was splashed with the ocean water and looked surprised.  “This water is salty,” she said.  I replied, “Remember how high the salinity readings were?”  “Oh, salinity measures saltiness?”  “Yes, we discussed that in class.  You’ve never been to the beach before?”  “No, never,” she replied.

I had grown-up in the Houston area and family outings to the beach were common throughout my life.  The neighborhood where I taught was less than 50 miles from the ocean and I had assumed that all my students had been to the beach.  I wondered how this young lady would have learned about oceanography from the four walls of a classroom.  Would she have learned that the ocean is salty from a textbook or worksheet?  I also wondered how often teachers make incorrect assumptions about our students prior experiences, particularly children who reside in urban areas.

The students that participated in the investigation of their watershed convinced me to take them to a community beach clean-up on Galveston Island the following spring on a Saturday.  They wanted to give up their own weekend time to make a difference.

It is easy to ignore or dismiss something that one cares little about.  Without some relationship to the land and recognition of people’s interdependence with nature, it becomes easy to not worry about polar bears and ice caps, spotted owls and old growth forests or migratory birds and water pollution.  Without understanding the big picture, some may not even make the connections between the previous pairings of environmental issues. Caring does not come as readily from a text book or video as does a direct experience.   I took students on a field trip to the Ridley turtle hatchling project during our aquatic study.  During the visit, students had an opportunity to pet one of the turtles that could not be released because it lost a foot in an illegal net.  Many were amazed to touch this animal and she seemed to enjoy the physical contact.  Months later, one of these students found a nesting turtle and protected it from being disturbed.   

Environmental awareness can blossom from meaningful learning into environmental action and students gain a sense of empowerment in improving their local environment.  “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics” (Leopold, 1949, p. viii) and of connection that comes from direct experience. 

The goals of developing awareness and understanding of the environment are goals of outdoor education that align with goals in science education.  In Science for all Americans Project 2061, (1990), topics such as: the diversity of life, the interdependence of life, energy flow, systems and agriculture are ecological understandings needed for scientific literacy. Using a local natural area as a learning resource to study ecology seems like a practical and effective instructional method.  The natural world is a science laboratory with limitless sensory data to explore.  Things can be seen in actual context, relationships and process.  Outdoor learning settings may be a pond or creek, a garden or farm, a mucky swamp or tide pool or it could even be a school yard habitat or a vacant lot.   Further, by emphasizing our place in and effect on the natural environment “…science fosters the kind of intelligent respect for nature that should inform decisions on the uses of technology and resources; without that respect, we are in danger of recklessly destroying our life-support system” (American Association for Advancement of Science, 1990, p. xiv).  

It was not long ago that many Americans had a close connection to the nature, to the land.  Even “city kids” like me had access to wooded vacant lots and creeks or bayous.  Many from my generation still had family that farmed or ranched and we spent our summers running the fields and pastures, fishing ponds and exploring the woods.  Before gasoline became so expensive, many Americans took summer vacations at National and state parks and forests.  Fewer and fewer Americans are venturing into our wondrous natural areas (Pergams & Zaradic, 2008).  Most young people today have little connection or experience in nature.  With this lack of experience, the symbolic world of the classroom has less and less meaning.  Perhaps it is time to offer a more relevant and engaging learning experience for K-12 students.  Outdoor education offers the effectiveness of direct learning in an enriched, multisensory environment and the excitement and wonderment that nature can inspire.