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

Photo by the US Fish and Wildlife Service

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

Most major public school systems in Maryland are developing remote learning plans for at least the fall semester in response to the ongoing pandemic. The continuation of remote learning will exacerbate the challenges that emerged at the end of the last school year.

Teachers and students have reported burnout and frustration related to adjusting to remote learning, as well as an increasing number of students disconnecting. However, taking students outside while they learn on their own can be a way to reduce these difficulties. Numerous studies have shown that students who learn outside are more motivated, independent and less anxious 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 learn about the environment. For over 40 years we have taken students across the watershed of the bay on our boats and canoes to explore wetlands, fish, examine oysters and test water quality.

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

A study comparing the same lessons taught indoors and outdoors published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2018 concluded that “lessons in nature stimulate subsequent classroom engagement and significantly reinforce it; after a lesson in nature, teachers were able to teach almost twice as long without having to interrupt instruction to redirect students’ attention.

Keeping students engaged will be key to success in remote learning this fall. More so, 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,” concluded Stanford professor Nicole Ardoin, after reviewing more than 100 studies on environmental issues. environmental education.

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

That’s why we’re calling on education officials to find new ways to encourage students to learn outdoors as they map out how schools will operate this fall. We can’t reasonably expect students to stay engaged with the school if it’s limited to what you can do while looking at a screen.

At CBF, we’ve adapted to new learning strategies by creating more than two dozen videos paired with written surveys for our new free educational series Learn Outside, Learn at Home. After viewing one of the short, educator-led videos, the surveys ask students to go to their backyard, local park, or other areas of their neighborhood to explore questions about their surroundings.

Tom Ackermann. Photo of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The questions they answer will help them understand how a storm sewer works, identify invasive species, appreciate the benefits of trees and, ideally, solve environmental problems in their community. These are self-contained outdoor educational experiences that provide students with real-world science knowledge about their neighborhood.

Every day, the CBF continues its work advocating for policy changes to improve water and air quality. When these efforts don’t work, we also take legal action to force change. However, we know that the backbone of our organization is education. If the public doesn’t understand the harmful effects of too much fertilizer, why we fight for more forest protection, or oppose development near shorelines, our advocacy and litigation efforts will be more difficult.

This is why CBF invests so much time and effort in educating each generation. Since the launch of our educational program in 1968, we have provided hands-on educational experiences to more than one million students throughout 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 environmental topics and specific grade levels to add to their distance learning programs.

Ultimately, students learn best when they are outdoors. Let’s work to continue to give them that opportunity by integrating outdoor learning and environmental lessons into distance education plans.


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

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