Connect Students With Outdoor STEM Learning Opportunities Alongside Science Professionals

Submitted by Michael Frankfort @mfrank_76

For young learners, an outdoor field experience can serve as the “spark” that ignites their interest in STEM and fuels an appreciation for the natural world. Hands-on field experiences serve as vital opportunities to get students outside while educating them on the local history, environment, and economy, as well as to build relationships within the learning community. Research supports how formative nature-based experiences are for young learners (Rosa and Collado 2019). Having positive experiences in nature is linked to positive environmental attitudes and behaviors. Frequent time in nature is also associated with physical and mental health benefits and the encouragement of pro-social behaviors.

Out-of-school programs provide a unique opportunity to bridge formal and non-formal education and provide valuable opportunities to introduce students to STEM. Out-of-school programs and spaces can engage students in meaningful, authentic learning situated in real-world contexts and make connections to classroom concepts. One way to enhance an out-of-school STEM program is to partner with scientists. Partnerships with STEM professionals gives students a broader view of STEM, including what it is, who does it, and where it happens (Roberts et al. 2018). These partnerships between educators, students, and scientists can be the foundation for transformational change in the learning environment and beyond.

The partnerships between out-of-school STEM programs and scientists can also form the start of a citizen science project that engages youth in collecting meaningful data related to a local issue. According to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, Learning Through Citizen Science: Enhancing Opportunities by Design, one possible outcome of a citizen science project is enhanced community science literacy (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2018).

The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) has established a partnership with the National Park Service (NPS) with support from the U.S. Department of Education to build the capacity of NPS units and 21st Century Community Learning Centers to design and deliver STEM programming. This programming partners formal and non-formal educators and engages youth from under-resourced and/or underrepresented communities in out-of-school-time, place-based citizen science and environmental monitoring. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program is a federal program administered through state educational agencies to provide support particularly to students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools.

The NEEF NPS-21st Century Community Learning Centers Greening STEM grantees work collaboratively to develop academic enrichment opportunities at NPS sites across the country. The lessons learned throughout this grant program thus far highlight the tremendous benefit science professionals confer through their involvement with educational programming. By connecting students with scientists, students have the opportunity to experience the outdoors through a scientific lens; learn valuable STEM skills; gain confidence, inspiration, and exposure to STEM pathways; and contribute to the collection of useful and high-quality data.

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