Highlights from the 2019 Outdoor Learning Symposium


“Education in the environment. Education about the environment. Education for the environment.” This idea, presented by environmental education (EE) champion Dr. Terry Wilson, kicked off the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education’s annual Outdoor Learning Symposium, held on June 18 at Lexington’s Frederick Douglass High School. More than 40 educators, administrators, and EE professionals from around the state spent the day in workshops focused on advice and educational tools to help teachers gain the skills and confidence needed to effectively engage their students in environmental education lessons. The event’s sessions were tailored to meet the needs of both administrators and teachers. Administrators engaged in sessions focusing on assessment, funding, research, and the principal’s perspective on outdoor learning. In other sessions, teachers completed training on practical application, resources, and ways to incorporate outdoor learning in their own classrooms. Wilson, retired Western Kentucky University Center for Environmental Education Director and Professor, led the event’s keynote speech. Rather than focusing on the term “environmental education,” he shifted the discussion toward “education in the environment.” “What can we do in order to conduct ‘education in the environment?’” he asked. “To teach in a different learning environment than what we and our students may be used to? We find our outdoor classrooms. See what’s there. Use it in multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary ways. Use it to teach as many subjects as you can. Measure a tree trunk. Make a sundial. Go geocaching. And what about the arts? Writing? Social studies? Lessons in every subject can happen outdoors. Hypothesizing. Mapping. Taking a 100-inch hike.” Identify little things around your campus, he advised, and begin asking questions. “A simple stump could become a record of change over time. Why is one year’s ring so much thicker than the one beside it? What happened that year that would’ve made for such a change in the thickness? What can we learn from these rings?” Once teachers have assessed what’s present in their school’s outdoor spaces, they can begin enhancing those outdoor spaces. “There’s no limit to the kinds of enhancements you can make,” Wilson said. “Add a pioneer garden, an amphitheater, animal track plots, an arboretum, a time capsule, native grasses and wildflowers, trails, tree, a bird blind, a compost pile, the list goes on and on. And then we can expand what that ‘outdoor classroom’ means. Could it include a park down the road? A nearby ditch? The stream that borders our property? What could we do there?” Individual teacher sessions expanded upon this idea. Dale Booth from the Kentucky Division of Water offered teachers a variety of ideas for field trips and classroom activities to incorporate stream education into their curriculum. “Teaching Outside,” a session dedicated to teachers and led by Vivian Bowles, retired Madison County science teacher, centered on behavior, time, and instructional management tips essential for authentic outdoor learning opportunities across the curriculum—even in the most unlikely places. In a “Lessons Learned” session, several teachers shared their “Wish-I-Had’ve-Knowns, Best Partnership-Evers, and Learning-As-We-Go’s.” Administrator sessions focused on similar topics, though through a slightly different lens. In “Research from the Field,” Cassy Elmore from Lincoln Co. Middle School and Meg Gravil from the University of Kentucky shared findings from their own research projects, which focused on outdoor EE field trips and test-taking outdoors. ​ “What I love most about EE is how interdisciplinary it is—you can use EE in lessons on math, civics, language arts, even cooking and food,” Gravil said. “EE is a great avenue to deliver any type of academic learning.” ​ She used the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary aspects of EE to create Growing Up WILD-inspired field trips as part of her research, which focused on early childhood education and EE. The teachers involved in her research reported that the study activities bridged learning standards and field trip learning objectives, as well as that Growing Up WILD made Next Generation Science Standards “fun and accessible” and that EE is an appropriate way to incorporate and meet learning standards. Elmore’s research project asked whether taking tests outdoors could increase students’ test scores. “I’ve had 15 years’ experience in the classroom,” Elmore said, “and in my experience, kids long to be outside of the four walls of the classroom.” Her findings, taken during a six-week energy unit for her seventh graders at Lincoln County Middle School, showed that in both the pre-test and post-test periods, students did achieve higher scores when taking the tests outdoors. Debbie Sims, former principal of LCMS who was the principal at the time of Elmore’s research, said of the project and EE in general that she “witnessed firsthand the impacts of outdoor learning. It can ignite excitement, discovery, and lifelong memories.” Other administrator sessions included principals’ viewpoints on the use of the outdoors as a classroom, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of outdoor learning as well as some examples of outdoor learning at their schools or districts. And a session jointly led by KAEE and the Kentucky Environmental Education Council shared information about green schools programs available in Kentucky and additional funding available for outdoor learning. Following the workshops, teachers and administrators enjoyed a “Community Partner Speed Dating” event, an opportunity to network with community partners eager to assist them with outdoor learning implementation. Tresine Logsdon, Energy and Sustainability Curriculum Coordinator at Fayette County Public Schools, spearheaded the networking event. Among the partners participating were Bluegrass Greensource; Campbell County Environmental Education Center; Eco Go; Fayette County Farm Bureau; Food Chain; Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources; Kentucky State University; Lexington Parks and Recreation; Seedleaf; Sustainable Communities Network; UK Arboretum; UK Urban Forest Initiative; University of Kentucky; the Department of Landscape Architecture at UK’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment; Wild Ones and Garden Club of Kentucky. ​“Ending the day with this event was ideal because KAEE is all about helping our educators make connections,” said KAEE Education Director Brittany Wray. “To have the chance for formal teachers and administrators to meet with organizations who are eager to help them meet their goals and strengthen EE in Kentucky was a great finale to a great symposium.”