Richmond leads $2 million grant on outdoor science teaching

August 2, 2019

Learning science can be situated outside of the classroom—and research from Michigan State University will develop new methods to show teachers how.

Professor Gail Richmond and collaborators received more than $2 million from the National Science Foundation in July to study ways in which the outdoors can be utilized for learning science, particularly in urban elementary schools.

Gail Richmond

“We want to expand the notion of what the classroom is,” said Richmond, of the Department of Teacher Education at MSU. “There is a misconception that urban environments don’t have many or any outdoor learning spaces—and that’s just not true. There are playgrounds and parks and so much more, and these are spaces which either are or could be meaningful to children and their families to understand the natural world better.”

In the study, which will extend through 2023, the scholars will work with more than 70 elementary teachers and 12 informal educators (such as park naturalists) in Detroit and Lansing, Mich. Their goal is to enhance the ability of educators to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in culturally responsive ways by using areas outside of the classroom—and to examine how this type of learning affects students from high-poverty communities.

In particular, the research will examine:

  • how teacher practices develop over time in multiple learning environments as they enact effective, responsive and NGSS-aligned approaches
  • how students from communities with high levels of poverty and who attend under-resourced schools engage with and learn science in these same environments
  • what factors either facilitate or prevent the development and refinement of effective NGSS-aligned teaching approaches that make use of informal education resources and strategies
Students work together outside on a project using digital tablets.

The project will also bridge the existing gap between formal and informal education, providing more insights about the benefits and constraints of outdoor spaces, building a broader community of educators and studying how this work might be applied in other contexts.

“One idea driving this research is that of empowering students to be good stewards of the environment,” Richmond continued. “We can help students understand phenomena about their world, to care more about it and to be active in preserving the health of that world in ways that are responsive to their needs, interests and concerns. We are particularly interested in supporting teachers working in resource-poor environments to provide such rich learning experiences to their students, most of whom have been historically marginalized in science.”

Collaborators on the project include co-PI Tali Tal from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, along with Renee Bayer of MSU’s CREATE for STEM Institute and Kara Haas from the MSU W. K. Kellogg Biological Station.

Students sort collection outdoors while part of their learning project. They crouch on soil with leaves and various plant matter to sort.
Photo courtesy of Gabe Knowles.

Starting in 2020, the researchers will begin a series of summer professional development sessions focused on outdoor learning, as well as follow-up meetings and classroom-based coaching during the year. Their goal is to learn more about supporting student knowledge and engagement as well as supporting effective teaching practices for educators. Eventually, they aim to use what is learned as a model for others in leveraging their own outdoor environments in powerful ways.

“We are hoping to capture the excitement about science early for these elementary students,” Richmond added. “We want them to know learning science is a powerful experience—and instill in them that it is an experience they want more of.”

Read more