Take Learning Outdoors
I have always been an avid outdoors-woman. I was raised with parents that valued and encouraged outdoor play and experiences. An appreciation for the outdoors was so instilled in me as a child that I went on to get my degree in wildlife ecology and spent the first part of my career working with endangered species. Then I became a bio teacher, and now I am a stay-at-home-mom raising two young children to love and appreciate nature as well.
I have been feeling on edge and foggy brained lately, and when I feel that way I know it's from one of three things: 1) stress, 2) not enough physical activity, or 3) not enough time spent outside. In this particular case, it was all three. So! My family and I hopped in the car and headed south to Whitewater State Park. It was just what I needed and just what my children needed.
Study after study has shown the benefits of spending time outdoors, especially for young people. Harvard Medical School published a report in 2010 stating that spending time outdoors may be the prescription for better health. Stanford reported in 2015 that taking regular nature walks may lower risk of depression. Amazon is loaded with books dedicated to the simple idea that the human brain is wired to be outside: "Go Outside and Come Back Better" by Ron Lizzi, "The Nature Fix" by Florence Williams, "Balanced and Barefoot" by Angela J. Hanscom, "Vitamin N" by Richard Louv, and "Last Child in the Woods", also by Richard Louv. The list goes on and on. National Geographic published an awesome article titled "We are Wired to be Outside". I just started reading "Place-Based Education" by David Sobel who also wrote "Beyond Ecophobia". I'll let you know how I like it!
It's odd that we live in a time that books need to be written about the benefits of being outdoors. Why do we need convincing? At any given moment we find ourselves with screens at our fingertips. Many students in the US study nature using online simulations and textbooks rather than experiencing it first hand. I am not saying that screens should be completely thrown out of the picture. As I sit here writing this blog, I clearly have some appreciation for technology. But screens should not replace outdoor time, physical activity, or opportunities to create, imagine and explore, in the home or at school.
As I flip through photos of my recent adventure in Whitewater State Park, I appreciate the number of learning experiences packed into two days. My children put their hands in the dirt, bonded with their father whom they get little time with, inhaled fresh air, gazed at the stars free from city lights. My 5 year old walked close to four miles and my darling 2 year old climbed on everything. They learned how to build a fire! They found and made their own walking sticks. They practiced reading a map. They observed and inquired about the natural world. In just two days my children were able to do all of this with no plan, textbooks, lesson plans, PowerPoint lectures, note-taking, or testing. Just them. Just us. Just the great outdoors.
When I was still teaching at a public school, much of my curriculum focused around being outside of the building. As a small, project-based school, we were fortunate to have the encouragement and resources to take learning beyond the walls of the classroom - out to the parking lot, to the local river basin, and even trips abroad through our school travel program (check out some of my past posts on student travel).
Homeschoolers, experiential educators, and stay-at-home-parents like myself have the flexibility to embrace nature-based learning. If you are home with your kids, get them outside if you don't already! If you are a public school teacher that has the flexibility and support from the district to take learning outside, I sure hope you're doing so. If you are an educator that is confined to the classroom, check out some outdoor learning activity ideas below that could be done right on school grounds.
The photos in the slideshow below are of my students enjoying various outdoor learning experiences. Many of these photos are from trips taken through our travel program.
Books that Inspire
Want to get your children and/or students outside? Inspire the urge to explore, or simply the desire to chill in some fresh air for a few minutes, with books. Check out this list of great reads that inspire a love of (or at least a respect for) the outdoors. The lists vary by age and purpose.
How to Work Outdoor Learning Activities Into Your Curriculum
Take every opportunity to get your students outside. If you have a lesson that could just be moved out onto the grass, do it. Best case scenario is that your lesson incorporates natural surroundings. This is easy for project-based learners and life science teachers. For math teachers, maybe not quite as easy. Or is it? Check out some of these fun integrated outdoor learning activities.
Take Reading Outside:
Take Writing Outside:
What's great about writing is that you could do it just about anywhere as long as you have a pen and some paper. With phones, Chromebooks, Kindles, and iPads on the rise, we can even bring along our mobile devices. Taking your writers outdoors is a great way to inspire writing topics, remove disturbances and distractions, and give them the space and peace that they need to focus.
Take Social Studies Outside:
Take Math Outside:
There are a lot of resources out there for implementing math activities outdoors. Most of them are for elementary aged students, a few for more advanced math concepts.
Take Science Outside:
Science outdoors is a no-brainer, especially bio. Simply bring students outdoors, let them observe their surroundings, ask questions, and design experiments. If you're looking for some other creative science activities to do outside, check these out:
You might be thinking, "How do I get my students outdoors in the winter?" I know this conundrum better than anyone. I live in Minnesota where it seems to be below zero four months of the year and we get blizzards in April. Here's what I'll say; even bringing students outside for 10 minutes per day is better than nothing. You might also consider again starting a student travel program at your school. Finally, if at all possible, incorporate the weather into your lessons. Test snow or rain for acid using a pH kit. Calculate relative density of snow, ice and water. Paint in the rain. Write in the outdoors on a snowy day! Even tough weather days inspire curiosity and creativity.
With that said, we are down to very few nice days! Get outside now, enjoy the fall colors, get your students inspired BEFORE the weather takes a dramatic turn. Good luck!
Check out Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for student-directed learning resources that take learning outdoors:
I also have a handful of free resources on student travel.
How do you take learning outside? I would love to add ideas to this post! Have a great fall everyone. Happy outdoor learning!
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Spring is the perfect time of year for citizen science! It's warming up outside, students are getting antsy and exhausted, testing is underway, breaks are badly needed. On top of that, things start to get active in the world of wildlife, especially in temperate regions like Minnesota. Animals emerge from hibernation, migrating species begin their long journeys to their summer sanctuaries, and it's breeding season for many organisms.
Citizen science is when citizens, like your students, have the opportunity to play an active role in wildlife studies or projects going on around the world that benefit from participation by citizens. Hawk Watch International, for example, hosts hawk counting events at their migration sites that anyone can participate in. Volunteers count passing hawks and record their count to an online database.
Citizen science is a great learning tool for many reasons. One is the application of science concepts to the real-world. Participating in citizen science also shows students that they can play a role in improving the community and the world around them. They are active citizens, an important 21st-century skill.
I highly encourage organizing classwide citizen science activities or taking a project-based learning approach to citizen science. Take a look at my PBL Toolkit to get students rolling on citizen science PBL projects. Using my Community Action Projects resource is one project-based learning approach that makes sense in this case, as students would be actively participating in projects that better the community.
The following is a list of some of my favorite citizen science projects to use with my high school students AND my own young children. The projects listed below are appropriate for ALL ages. You could get students involved either part of school curriculum, at home for homeschool projects, on a family camping trip, or over the summer to keep students busy and sharp, among other things, There are many more citizen science programs out there other than the 20 listed below. I'd love to know about others that you've done with your students!
20 Citizen Science Projects for Students of All Ages
1. Globe at Night
The purpose of this project is to raise awareness about light pollution and its impact on communities. Students can report their night sky brightness observations daily. All they need is a computer or phone. This would be a great supplemental learning experience to a broader PBL project on light pollution.
This website has a variety of projects to get involved in, which is nice when it comes to student-directed learning. Students can pick a citizen science project in line with their interests such as insects, mammals, migrating species, invasive species and more. What's really cool about this website is that is promotes communication and collaboration with naturalists and research scientists.
3. Project Budburst
Project Budburst focuses on plant observations. The intention of the program is to understand human impact on wildlife, particularly plants. One area of focus right now is determining how plants are and will continue to respond to climate change. This site has a tab for educators with age specific learning activity recommendations.
4. Project Noah
Project Noah is another citizen science option that emphasizes wildlife observation and inquiry. There is a section for educators that has a "classroom" feature where teachers can set up and manage class citizen science projects. The education section also provides investigation ideas from mimicry to backyard ecology. This is a great option for homeschoolers as well. You can add as many students to the "class" as you wish. It would be a great independent PBL project because citizen science naturally collaborative, an important element of PBL.
5. Project Squirrel
This citizen science project seems a bit dull. I mean, squirrels? They're so ubiquitous and kind of a nuisance. They aren't rare. They aren't large predators. They are a slightly cuter version of a rat. Squirrels, however, can tell us a lot about the health of the surrounding environment. Students can get involved in this project by recording squirrel observations and photos. It's a more interesting and hands-on way to learn about ecosystems. There is also a special experiment students can get involved in that looks at food patches.
This resource is incredible. What's different about Zooniverse compared to the other citizen science options mentioned so far is that the projects cross disciplines. There are projects on climate, history, literature, medicine and even art, not just natural science. One of the projects on there right now is called "Anti-Slavery Manuscripts". This project was added by the Boston Public Library to include citizens in transcribing their collection of letters written by anti-slavery activists. I think the best feature of this website is that students can create their own citizen science projects to add to the site, which citizens from all over the world can then contribute to. That would be a really cool PBL project and deep learning experience for older students or as a class project. I used to do large group projects like this with my advisory.
SciStarter is similar to Zooniverse in that there are a variety of citizen science projects available to choose from AND students can create their own. It is essentially a massive catalog of citizen science projects. One of my favorite things about this website is their blog. The blog articles illuminate the impact of citizen science on our understanding of the world.
This is a super black and white, straightforward catalog of citizen science projects in the U.S. It is not fancy and does not have a special section for educators like many of the websites mentioned so far. However, the catalog is exhaustive. If you are having your learners do student-directed PBL projects, this website is a great place to start. They can search for ideas relevant to their interests.
9. World Water Monitoring Challenge
This project is fantastic for raising awareness and educating students on water issues across the globe. Students monitor their local waterways by performing water quality tests. Consider implementing scientific open-inquiry labs on water quality in your area (check out my inquiry-based learning toolkit for guiding materials - I also have several student-directed water pollution activities in my store including inquiry, PrBL and PBL..) Students that are especially passionate about this issue and want to get more involved can apply to be ambassadors on the website. The downside to this citizen science project is that it is not free. Specific water quality kits need to be purchased to participate. One upside (of many) is that it's global.
10. The Great Backyard Bird Count
This citizen science project is only open for participation a few days per year. There are four designated days for citizens from all over the world to count birds. This year (2019), almost 33 million birds were counted. Students can count birds, submit observations, and explore the data. There is also a photo contest students can take part in! Your students will need access to smartphones and the eBird app to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Hawk Watch International, which I mentioned above, is a similar program, but specific to hawks.
11. Journey North
Journey North is a citizen science option that specifically focuses on migrating species such as the monarch butterfly and whooping cranes. There are many organisms to choose from as well as specific projects. The Symbolic Migration project is one example where students from around the world create paper butterflies and send them to students in Mexico. Those students then care for them through the winter and return them in the spring, symbolizing butterfly migration. This is a cool way to integrate art, geography, science, history, and culture, as well as to encourage global learning and collaboration. My kids and I participate in the loon program each spring, which is the MN state bird (my place of residence).
12. Butterflies and Moths of North America
As the title of this citizen science option suggests, this particular project is specific to butterfly and moth sightings across North America. Students can take photographs and record sighting locations of butterflies, moths, and/or caterpillars to the database. Students can open and analyze data maps. This is another one that is easy to participate in as long as you're in North America. Migrating moths and butterflies use the north as a summer sanctuary and the south as a winter sanctuary. They can be found in most environments from urban gardens to national parks. My students and children take part in this project every spring.
13. WildCam Gorongosa
This project can be found and your group managed through Zooniverse (#6). Scientists and conservationists need help tracking and identifying species in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Students scroll through photos taken by wildcams placed in the park. Students identify organisms and their behaviors IN the photos. That's one interesting thing about this citizen science project; students can participate from anywhere in the world, including in a classroom. I understand some educators don't have the flexibility to get out of the building everyday to view wildlife. This is a great option for those in this situation. The "lab" tab in the upper right corner of the homepage is a place for educators to compile class data, which might come from an inquiry investigation for example. Students can also discuss what they see with other volunteers and scientists. It's highly collaborate, and pretty addicting once you start!
14. Nature's Notebook
This website is geared toward educators. Nature's Notebook focuses heavily on phenology monitoring, but what's cool is that you can create your own phenology monitoring program with your students that is relevant to your community. Your students could consider starting a citizen science program as an upper level project-based learning experience.
15. The Wildlab Bird
The Wildlab Bird is another citizen science opportunity offered by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Students observe birds near their learning spaces and report sightings of GPS-tagged birds to Wildlab. One thing that is unique to this citizen science option is that they promote STEM. They put a strong emphasis on integrating technology, so much so, that they will provide iPhones to your students for this project. They will also visit your school or other learning environment free of cost to help you get started.
16. Celebrate Urban Birds
This project encourages urbanites to observe their surroundings and appreciate wildlife. You don't have to be in the middle of a national park to find wildlife. This is a great project for urban students that don't have easy access to natural areas.
17. Project FeederWatch
I love this project! There are so many learning opportunities built into it. It is not simply a matter of counting birds in your school yard. You could take advantage of design thinking by having your students build their own bird feeders. The shape, structure size, color, and food included will all be dependent on the bird they're hoping to attract and count. In order to find this information students will have to do some research on the natural history of birds in their community. You could split your students up into groups, have each team determine a bird of focus, design a birdfeeder specific to the species of their choice, and then observe and count the birds to report to Project FeederWatch. This would be a great PBL experience.
18. School of Ants
The purpose of this program is for citizens to help create a thorough map of ant species and their ranges across North America. This is a great supplemental activity or could be a PBL project in itself. Students would learn about the natural history of ants in North America, what they eat, their behaviors, distribution, and more while contributing to real science. This website has many resources for educators as well.
19. The Lost Ladybug Project
Another one on insects! The Lost Ladybug Project asks citizens to help them collect ladybugs, photograph them, and submit the images along with some basic information such as location, date, habitat, etc, to their database. This could be a great supplemental activity to a larger discussion or unit on topics like invasive species, habitats, competition, evolution, genetics, and more. Be creative, or let your students get creative by having them conduct student-led scientific open inquiry investigations.
20. The Great Sunflower Project
The Great Sunflower Project emphasizes pollinators, a hugely important topic and one that has been in the spotlight for quite some time, as our pollinators are at risk. There are a few ways to get students involved in this program. One way is to have them grow sunflowers, monitor pollinator visitors, and test the effects of pesticides on the pollinators. Students can also participate in pollinator counts anytime, anywhere, even in the school yard or in their home gardens. As a project-based teacher, I think this final option is the coolest way to get involved; students can learn about important habitats for pollinators by literally creating their own pollinator habitat such as a bee or butterfly garden.
Thanks for visiting! I hope you're able to get your students involved in at least one of these citizen science projects this spring. By introducing them now, they can take over and continue to stay involved on their own throughout the summer and into next year. I'd love to know about anymore citizen science projects not mentioned here that would be worth looking into.
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Photo Credit: Many of the photos above were taken directly from the citizen science websites cited. The quote photo, blog cover, butterfly photo, bird photos, butterfly art piece, and child looking at butterfly catalog were taken by Experiential Learning Depot.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.