Outdoor Education Experiences and AP Environmental Science

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Authored by

  • Nicholas Smith-Sebasto
    Montclair State University, New Jersey School of Conservation
    Branchville, New Jersey


Can't students learn what they need to learn in a lab? Do AP Environmental Science students who have substantial excursions into the outdoors know more about environmental science, have more positive attitudes about the environment, and/or behave in more environmentally responsible ways than students who do not have such outdoor experiences?

My response to the first question is an unequivocal "no." My response to the second question recognizes a lack of scholarly research to provide an adequate answer.

There is, however, some research suggesting that outdoor education experiences do contribute to increased learning about Earth systems, more positive attitudes toward the environment, and temporary increases in the self-reported performance of environmentally responsible behaviors. By including substantial excursions and study in the outdoors, teachers may provide environmental science students with the opportunity to avoid what L. B. Leopold (1953/1972, 165) identified as "one of the penalties of an ecological education (namely finding "the damage inflicted on land [as] quite invisible")." Outdoor education may also help students avoid the alienation, described by Jim Dunlop (1992), which much of modern education may be fostering.

I want to discuss two other reasons why AP Environmental Science instruction must include an outdoor component.

Environmental Literacy

My first reason is to develop environmental literacy.

I have encountered many science majors who cannot identify a beech tree or a robin’s song. This finding would probably not surprise Mike Weilbacher (1993, 4), who suggested that he could guarantee "that not one in almost one million kids in Philadelphia-area schools can [identify] a grackle or recognize the song of the titmouse [both] common in all Philadelphia-area habitats."

When I point out that they can all identify songs that are only a few years old, but not the trees they see every day, they say, "But no one has ever taught us about trees and birds before."

I have found myself teaching the water cycle to junior and senior science majors who acted as if they had never seen or heard of it before. Biogeochemical cycles, energy flow, speciation, biodiversity, soil structure, and competition were topics new to these students—students who had already completed 15 years of formal, structured education. This substantiates Larry Gigliotti's (1990, 9) assertion that "We seem to have produced a citizenry that is emotionally charged but woefully lacking in basic ecological knowledge." I have similar experiences with new students every year.

Students can’t truly learn about life-support systems and ecological processes of the planet in laboratories and in isolation from the myriad processes (some known; many, perhaps even most, unknown) actually occurring on the planet.

The notion that outdoor education is vital is not new. More than 50 years ago, L. B. Sharp (1947, 43), considered by some to be the progenitor of the concept, wrote: "That which can best be learned inside the classroom should be learned there; and that which can best be learned through direct experience outside the classroom, in contact with native materials and life situations, should there be learned."

A recent reform in medical education can provide a model for environmental science educators. The foundational course, gross anatomy, was for years taught by studying human cadavers in laboratories. But now some medical schools have students observe living, albeit hospitalized, humans. This revised method recognizes the human body as a gestalt. Studying the living whole is preferable to studying deceased parts.

The commonalities between medical school instruction and AP Environmental Science classes are substantial. For example, AP Environmental Science often involves laboratory investigations. The anatomy and physiology of the Earth are often studied indoors in a lab. Just as medical schools have now recognized that it is advantageous to study a patient as a whole, environmental science instruction should teach the life-support systems of the Earth as a whole. This will require a substantial amount of time out of the classroom doing actual field investigations.

Reconnecting with Nature

Stewart White (1904, 122–123), in his wonderful book The Mountains, illustrates the second reason why AP Environmental Science instruction must include a substantive outdoor component. In the chapter "On Seeing Deer," he explained, "... supposing that a [person] has the natural ability to receive visual impressions, the tenderfoot fills out his[/her] full capacity with the striking features of his[/her] surroundings. To be able to see anything more obscure in form or color, he[/she] must naturally put aside from his[/her] attention some one or another of these obvious features. He [/She] can, for example, look for a particular kind of flower on a side hill by refusing to see other kinds. ... As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificially obvious, then you too will see deer."

Learning environmental science in constructed laboratories and without actual exposure to the environment may fill students' minds with only the obvious and not the "artificially obvious." In other words, students need outdoor exposure so that they can see not deer but the workings of the planet's life-support systems.

Much of your course should take place outdoors in order to help students develop an aesthetic appreciation of and a sense of wonder about the environment. As Anna Botsford Comstock (1911/1994, 1–2) suggested, outdoor education, and nature study in particular, "makes [a learner] familiar with nature's ways and forces, ... cultivates [her/his] imagination, ... cultivates ... a love of the beautiful, [b]ut, more than all, ... gives ... a sense of companionship with life out-of-doors and an abiding love for nature." Ellen Doris (1992, 26) amplified this notion when she observed that "The greatest challenge of all teaching, and of science teaching in particular, is to enhance students' wonder about the world around them and help them pursue their own curiosities to make learning an interesting, lifelong process."

The process that Michael Cohen (1995) identified as reconnecting with nature is best, and perhaps only, achieved by actual excursions into nonhuman-dominated settings. I repeatedly expose my students to Cohen's exercises and have the pleasure of students telling me just how eye opening they are. James Trefil stated, "If you don't know about something, you don't value it" (Pool, 1991, 266). It is important to consider that if students don't value something, if they are not emotionally attached to it, they also may not effectively learn about it.


Cohen, M. J. Reconnecting with Nature. Friday Harbor, Wash.: Project Nature Connect, 1995.

Comstock, A. B. Handbook of Nature Study. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. (Original work published 1911)

Doris, E. "Keeping Wonder Alive." Holistic Education Review 5 (September 1992): 26–31.

Dunlop, J. "Lessons from Environmental Education in Industrialised Countries." Environmental Education: An Approach to Sustainable Development. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 1992.

Gigliotti, L. M. "Environmental Education: What Went Wrong? What Can Be Done?" Journal of Environmental Education 22 (1990): 9–12.

Hogan, K. Eco-Inquiry. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1994.
(Author's note: This book was written with elementary and middle school learners as the target. Creative AP Environmental Science teachers should, however, be able to modify, with little effort, some of the activities to make them relevant for their students.)

Leopold, L. B. Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. (Original work published 1953)

Pool, R. "Science Literacy: The Enemy Is Us." Science 251 (January 1991): 266–267.

Rosenthal, D. B. Environmental Science Activities. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995.

Sharp, L. B. "Basic Considerations in Outdoor and Camping Education." The Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principles 31 (1947): 43–47.

Stapp, W. B., and Cox, D. A. 1974. Environmental Education Activities Manual, Volume VI: Senior High Activities. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Stapp, 1979.
(Author's note: This book is quite rare and some of the information provided may be out of date. Still, it is a good resource and is worth the effort to locate a copy.)

Weilbacher, M. "The Renaissance of the Naturalist." Journal of Environmental Education 25 (1993): 4–7.

White, S. E. The Mountains. New York: McClure, Phillips & Company, 1904.