More than a dozen Boston Public School teachers and area educators participated in a two-day professional development institute hosted by the Arnold Arboretum and the Museum of Science, in collaboration with the Friends of the Boston Schoolyards. Science in the Schoolyard—Teaching Science Standards With Outdoor Spaces aimed to help teachers see the power of outdoor learning. Together we examined curriculum and practices that nurture student relationships to the natural world and experimented with these in two BPS schoolyards: the Mission Hill K-8 School and Dante Alighieri Montessori School.
The Arnold Arboretum hosted educators on Saturday, May 4. Ana Maria Caballero, Nature Education Specialist, began with a presentation of four essential science practices that allow students to “learn science by doing science.” Using the landscape for inspiration, teachers encountered complex phenomena, first indoors through a set of prepared materials at stations, and then outside in a free exploration of the wetlands, lawns, and woods around the Hunnewell Building. How does a drop of water behave on the surface of a leaf? What explains the veined remains of a leaf during decomposition? How can we explain the seemingly different shaped leaves found at different heights of the same holly plant? These and other phenomena spurred teachers to wonder, make claims, and use evidence to support their thinking.
Earth science, physical science and life science standards can all be addressed in outdoor spaces and schoolyards. Armed with copies of the Massachusetts Science Technology and Engineering standards and the Science and Engineering Practices, teachers began to brainstorm ways in which natural outdoor settings can help engage children with specific topics, or be useful for elaboration and even assessments of classroom based learning. For example, by observing the way a cultivar of Fortune’s spindle tree (Euonymus fortunei ‘Coloratus’; 21105*MASS) from 1930 is growing alongside a red maple (Acer rubrum ‘Schlesingeri’; 3256*A) from 1888, teachers began to wonder how one plant affects the other, whether the hole inside the maple was caused by the vine, which roots belong to which plant, and what type of symbiosis this illustrates. As is usual in science, there were many more questions than answers!
On Saturday May 18, teachers gathered at the Museum of Science to work with teacher educator Meredith Mahoney and learn from a few carefully selected exhibits to address topics in physical science and life science. A simple activity involving balls and a hula hoop, with minimal directions, allowed teachers to explore concepts related to forces and motion, and consider many variables when setting up experiments. This conversation continued as teachers then engaged with Science in the Park, an exhibit that uses playground equipment and familiar objects to investigate the pushes and pulls of everyday life. Teachers then were encouraged to play with materials and create a game or model that could be used to teach various physical science concepts.
A second area of learning at the Museum of Science involved visiting the Butterfly Garden, insect exhibit and bee hive. Teachers observed various insects in a natural setting, examining their body parts and behavior. This close observation of natural phenomena led to interesting questions—do bees ingest pollen and nectar for their own sustenance? What is used to make the honey in the hive? What are butterfly scales really like? How long is the proboscis? This type of scientific curiosity is exactly what we want for all students and using the outdoors for science learning is a natural conduit to achieving these results.
On both days, the afternoons were spent visiting the different outdoor spaces of the Mission Hill and Alighieri Schools, analyzing places within that would lend themselves to all manner of scientific investigations. This allowed teachers to get inspiration from different outdoor spaces, imagine how their own schoolyards could be sources for authentic science learning, and inspired them to envision scenarios where students are actively using science practices to make sense of their experiences within outdoor spaces. This goal is also shared by the Friends of the Boston Schoolyards, an organization which actively promotes the use of beautiful outdoor classrooms and play spaces found within many of the Boston Public Schools for academic, social, and emotional learning.
If you are interested in this topic of outdoor education, join the Arboretum for Educators on June 1, or during the next academic calendar starting in October 2019. Together, we work to support life science teaching and learning using the outdoors.