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Taking teaching outdoors: Expanding lesson plans far beyond the classroom walls

K-12 educators participate in Taking Teaching Outdoors, a professional development academy hosted by ORAU to show teachers how to incorporate the natural environment into their lesson plans.

Summertime for teachers typically means time to relax and enjoy the sunshine by the pool or at the beach. However, it’s also a great time to take advantage of professional development opportunities. In some cases, they can learn and soak in the sun at the same time!

On June 18, ORAU hosted From Four Walls to No Walls: Taking Teaching and Learning Outdoors. This event was presented by the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Instructors Annie Roth, manager of the teacher networks, and Grayson Shelor, lead teacher naturalist, spent the afternoon with 6th-12th grade teachers showing them how to expand the minds of students far beyond just using PowerPoints and textbooks.

A K-12 educator examines a water sample during the Taking Teaching Outdoors professional development academy hosted by ORAU

“When we are learning outside, we are offering students a way to be successful in science the same way that they naturally play,” said Shelor. “Kids love being outside, which makes them experts in a way. We know that we have a trend that students tend to become less interested in science during adolescence. If we can combine learning with having fun outdoors, then ultimately, we are serving our students better as they head back into the classrooms.”

One of the main goals of the event is to get teachers away from their seats and expand teaching and learning from four walls to no walls while encouraging observation, discussion, and reflection.  From this experience, they find themselves able to facilitate strategies back in their own schoolyard. Being able to learn valuable lessons to take back to students is something that the participants took away from this experience.

“I teach ecology, so I really value letting students explore the outside, and we are lucky enough to have space to do that where I teach,” said Dallas Freeman, a 9th grade teacher at Clinton High School in Clinton, Tenn. “Students need sunshine. They need to connect with our environment if they are going to take care of it. They have to appreciate it and not just see it as a space of ground, and that’s something this course covered well.”

Throughout the day, teachers got to take part in all sorts of outdoor activities, including going out to the pond to hunt for and identify insects. The first part of the event challenged the teachers to look at the activities in the eyes of one of their students. When they put on the learning cap instead of their typical role as the instructor, they can better anticipate what kinds of questions students may have when faced with similar challenges.

A K-12 educator collects a water sample during the Taking Teaching Outdoors professional development academy hosted by ORAU

“You never hit a point in life where you figure everything out that you will ever need to know,” said Roth. “We are always learners when it comes to science and education and putting on our learning hat and listening to each other is really one of the best ways to draw out some of the most meaningful connections that can be made for the audience, and they can then take those lessons back to the classrooms in the fall.”

Taking Teaching Outdoors was just one of the many free workshops offered by ORAU this summer. These professional development courses covered a variety of subjects, including lesson planning, student engagement, and new technologies which help strengthen STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning in the classroom. Be sure to check out the rest of the feature stories to learn more about these incredible professional development opportunities!

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About ORAU

ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, provides science, health, and workforce solutions that address national priorities and serve the public interest. Through our specialized teams of experts and access to a consortium of more than 150 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local, and commercial customers to provide innovative scientific and technical solutions and help advance their missions. ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Media Contacts

Pam BoneeDirector, CommunicationsCell: (865) 603-5142
Wendy WestManager, CommunicationsCell: (865) 207-7953