MSU Researchers Obtain $2M to Bring Outdoor Science Lessons to Urban Schools

Researchers at Michigan State University will lead a $2 million project funded by the National Science Foundation to develop methods to show teachers how the outdoors can be used for learning science, particularly in urban elementary schools.
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Researchers at MSU are leading a project studying the effects of outdoor science lessons on students in high-poverty urban communities. // Stock photo

Researchers at Michigan State University will lead a $2 million project funded by the National Science Foundation to develop methods to show teachers how the outdoors can be used for learning science, particularly in urban elementary schools.

Gail Richmond, a professor in the Department of Teacher Education, and collaborators will work through 2023 with more than 70 elementary school teachers and 12 informal educators in Detroit and Lansing. She says their goal is to enhance the ability of educators to implement the Next Generation Science Standards, a multi-state effort, in ways that respond to culture and to examine how this type of learning affects students from high-poverty communities.

“We want to expand the notion of what the classroom is,” Richmond says. “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.”

Professional development sessions focused on outdoor learning will begin next summer, and the program will also include follow-up meetings and classroom-based coaching during the year.

The research will examine how teacher practices develop in multiple learning environments as they enact Next Generation-aligned approaches, how students from communities with high levels of poverty and under-resourced schools engage with and learn in these environments, and what factors either facilitate or prevent the development and refinement of effective Next Generation-aligned teaching approaches that use informal education resources and strategies.

Richmond says the work is also designed to bridge the gap between formal and informal education, provide insights about the benefits and constraints of outdoor spaces, and build a broader community of educators studying how the work could be applied in other contexts.

“One idea driving this research is that of empowering students to be good stewards of the environment,” Richmond says. “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.”

Project collaborators include Tali Tal from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, Renee Bayer of MSU’s CREATE for STEM Institute, and Kara Haas from the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station.

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