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Nature's Classroom: Helping Schools Get Kids Outside to Learn

Cal Poly research groupFrom left: Olivia Perry, Elijah Lin-Lubbers and Ronan Saunders with liberal studies major Marisa Ritchie (far right) on a nature walk at the Cal Poly Leaning Pine Arboretum. photos by alexis kovacevic


APRIL 2023
BY nick wilson

To better teach methods of inquiry and include students of various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, a recent Cal Poly study on a professional development program examined environmental science instruction practices. The program includes life science themes with a focus on the state's Next Generation Science Standards to connect content to context while weaving in local phenomena and language development.

Even on California’s Central Coast, with proximity to natural environments, some elementary and middle school students lack exposure to ecological experiences due to family financial constraints, parental priorities and other factors. 

“Culturally responsive teaching is making sure that you’re aware of diverse student backgrounds and ensuring that all of your students’ opinions and voices are represented,” said Sierra Martin, who participated as an undergraduate Liberal Studies student researcher. “There are various ways to do that through outdoor education.”

Martin is earning a Multiple Subject Teacher Education Preparation (MSTEP) credential from the School of Education, a department within the College of Science and Mathematics.

The research, led by liberal studies Professor Jasmine Nation, was centered around a professional development week summer session, hosted by the Central Coast Science Project, involving 33 teachers at the upper elementary through eighth grade level at schools in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

Nation and her student research team of Martin (Liberal Studies, ’22); Spencer Paine, a liberal studies senior from Torrance, California; and Marisa Ritchie, a liberal studies senior from Folsom, California; analyzed science teaching practices among local teachers and facilitated discussions around lesson planning at the professional development summer institute held at Cal Poly in 2022.

Cal Poly research groupFrom left: Kurt Holland, Spencer Paine, Marisa Ritchie, Sierra Martin and Jasmine Nation at an on-campus professional development session for teachers.

An interdisciplinary team of Cal Poly professors and local teacher-educators led workshops on standards-based tools and strategies surrounding local science phenomena.

California’s Next Generation Science Standards, approved in 2013, move away from solely focusing on sharing disciplinary content to also value the principles of engineering practices and cross cutting concepts, which are components of the state's K-12 science education framework. The aim is for K-8 students to think and act like scientists and engineers in their science activities.

The conference sought to offer teachers guidance on these science standards with a focus on life science content and environmental education practices while collecting survey data from teachers for research analysis. 

Nation, the student-researcher team, and Kurt Holland, a School of Education faculty member, led a sequence of activities on outdoor education. They also provided feedback to teachers working in small groups to develop a lesson for a collaborative unit for the 2022-23 academic year. 

By the end of the week, teachers gained confidence developing lesson ideas around observation of plants and animals on their respective school campuses, such as through nature journaling or leading student walk-and-talks outside. 

A subset of teachers also created lesson plans around campus habitat conservation, such as increasing natural environments for birds by adding a water source. Teachers also created outdoor lessons designed to inspire students to develop their own questions and drive inquiry. 

“How do they present the project and then the students draw upon their knowledge and ask questions that drive the next step?” Nation said. “Critical scholars are really pushing for students to have more agency in the classroom and take on the role of scientists in a way that makes a difference to their lives and their communities.”

The researchers closely collaborated on the work, which was funded by the Frost Summer Undergraduate Research Program. The student team helped design and led parts of the summer professional development, including modeling for teachers how to demonstrate phase change by converting liquid cream into a solid by making homemade ice cream.

The Cal Poly research team found that K-8 outdoor science education often focuses on guest speakers and field trips, which can be “excellent methods” of instruction but also limiting, Martin said.

“From prior research we knew that teachers feel sort of unprepared to tackle this subject within their school settings,” Martin said. 

The professional development showcased educational activities that can be done on a school campus, including outdoor spaces on school grounds such as a play area, student garden, sidewalk planters, or even a dirt patch between buildings. 

Nation added, “We want to encourage elementary teachers to teach science in engaging, meaningful ways. We want to remove barriers, too, because often elementary teachers feel less comfortable with the disciplinary content and feel overwhelmed by the abundance of tasks, performance expectations and content areas.” 

Nation said the study involved a “really neat exchange where the current teachers are sharing their knowledge of the classroom and Cal Poly students who are soon-to-be teachers are taking observational notes and learning from these teachers while conducting research.”

The Cal Poly students learned to do ethnographic research, help design surveys and then analyze the data. 

The team coauthored a five-page paper and will present their findings at the spring National Association for Research in Science Teaching conference in Chicago in April. 

outdoor education quoteNation and the team are currently visiting a subset of participating teachers’ classrooms to follow the progress on the lesson planning. 

“We need more ideas about what meaningful science looks like in the classroom, and how we can support teachers in doing that,” Nation said. “I think people are pretty much in agreement that this is a good way to learn, but it’s still very rare in classrooms to be learning science in this way.”

Jasmine Nation,
Kurt Holland,


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