Opinion: The Need for Outdoor Environmental Education in Maryland’s Distance Learning Program

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US Fish & Wildlife Service photo

As schools rethink their learning strategies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the opportunity to include more outdoor learning.

Most of Maryland’s large public school systems are developing distance learning plans for at least the fall semester in response to the ongoing pandemic. The pursuit of distance learning will exacerbate the challenges that arose at the end of the last school year.

Teachers and students alike reported burnout and frustration with adjusting to distance learning as well as an increasing number of students disconnecting. However, getting students outside while they learn on their own can be a way to reduce these difficulties. Numerous studies have shown that students who learn outdoors are more motivated, independent and have less anxiety than students who do not have these opportunities.

At the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, we believe the outdoors is a great place to learn, especially to find out more about the environment. For over 40 years, we’ve taken students from across the Bay’s watershed on our boats and canoes to explore wetlands, fish, examine oysters and test the water quality.

These experiences have shown us how students engage and connect with nature by learning outdoors. It is easy to see this happening through the smiles of the students as they hold a striped bass or paddle in a canoe. Our own observations are supported by extensive research.

A study comparing the same lessons taught inside and out published in Frontiers in Psychology concluded in 2018, “Nature lessons stimulate subsequent classroom engagement and dramatically amplify it; after a lesson in nature, teachers were able to teach almost twice as long without having to interrupt teaching to redirect students’ attention.

Keeping students engaged will be key to the success of distance learning this fall. Even more, students develop a passion for learning when educated about their natural environment, according to other research.

“There is no doubt that environmental education is one of the most effective ways to instill a passion for learning in students” Stanford professor Nicole Ardoin concluded after reviewing over 100 studies on environmental education.

Unfortunately, due to group gathering restrictions, the CBF is currently unable to take classes on our traditional field experiences that combine environmental education with the outdoors.

That’s why we’re asking education leaders to find new ways to encourage students to learn outdoors as they develop how schools operate this fall. We cannot reasonably expect students to stay engaged in school if that is limited to what you can do while looking at a screen.

At CBF, we have adapted to new learning strategies by creating over two dozen videos associated with written surveys for our new and free Learn outside, learn at home educational series. After watching one of the short videos led by educators, the surveys ask students to go to their backyard, local park, or other areas in their neighborhood to explore questions about their surroundings.

Tom Ackerman. Photo by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The questions they answer will help them understand how a storm drain works, identify invasive species, appreciate the benefits of trees and, ideally, solve environmental problems in their community. These are self-directed outdoor education experiences that provide students with concrete scientific knowledge about their neighborhood.

Every day, the CBF continues to advocate for policy changes to improve water and air quality. When those efforts don’t work, we also advocate in court to force change. However, we know that the backbone of our organization is education. If the public does not understand the detrimental effects of too much fertilizer, why we are fighting for more forest protection or oppose development near shore, then our advocacy and litigation efforts will be more difficult.

This is why CBF invests so much time and effort in educating each generation. Since launching our education program in 1968, we have provided hands-on education experiences to over one million students across the Bay watershed. We are not going to stop because of a pandemic.

We’re here to help any interested school district, teacher or parent identify ways to incorporate outdoor learning into their education programs. This fall, we will also be rolling out curated programs for teachers and school systems that focus on specific environmental topics and grade levels to add to their distance learning programs.

The bottom line is that students learn best when they are outdoors. Let’s work to continue giving them this opportunity by incorporating outdoor learning and environmental lessons into distance education plans.

–TOM ACKERMAN

The writer is vice president of education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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