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Expert Alert: Learning in Outdoor, Digital Spaces

Children at the fort they built at Stowe Elementary school
October 28, 2020

Educator’s creative curriculum comes in handy during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to rethink safety and reorder classrooms. It has pushed educators to reimagine lesson plans for a variety of settings, including in-person, virtual, and—increasingly—outdoor spaces. 

Long before the novel coronavirus necessitated this shift, Jennifer Kreps Frisch, associate professor in the UMD Department of Education, was showcasing the importance of experiential outdoor learning in her classes and creatively harnessing technology through activities like podcasting to teach about science and the environment.

UMD Associate Professor Jennifer Kreps Frisch, Department of EducationFrisch’s expertise lies at the intersection of teaching, technology, and environmental education. She agreed to answer some questions about her work and is available to speak to the media about: 1) the benefits of outdoor learning in K-12 schools, and 2) the use of digital storytelling to explain scientific concepts. 

1. Besides the obvious health and safety reasons during the pandemic, how does holding classes outdoors benefit students?

Students love going outside. When teachers can use the outdoors as a classroom, the lesson will automatically be more engaging—as long as the children are prepared for the weather. Think about the differences between a classroom and a forest. Being outside gives students a chance to stand up and wiggle, to make field-based observations, to take (reasonable) risks and grow. 

Teachers might think that the only reason for taking students outdoors would be to teach science. However, you can teach any subject outdoors! The Jeffers Foundation, based out of Plymouth, MN, does an excellent job of providing teachers with tools, tips, and resources for teaching outdoors. My students appreciate the foundation’s advice on making “the outdoor classroom” just an extension of the indoor classroom, with similar rules and procedures for management. 

Emily Morgan, who writes a series of wonderful non-fiction books for kids, has suggested that teachers (and parents) incorporate “green breaks” into students’ schedules. These breaks are planned outdoor activities to help reduce the mental and physical fatigue we are all feeling from staring at screens all the time. They give us a chance to rest, refocus, and return to learning with renewed energy.

2. Why do you think digital storytelling is an effective way to teach about science? 

I think stories are the best way to teach about anything. A story can serve as a bridge. When you’re listening to a story, your brain is making connections. You are connecting your experiences with those of the storyteller. The more connections you can make between a new idea and your feelings and experiences, the better you will retain that knowledge—that’s how our brains work. 

When I started my line of research, I was focusing on the stories teachers told in order to help kids understand science. In this case, those with authority are usually the ones telling their stories. I wanted to give students opportunities to share their stories—to create science stories based on their lives and experiences, and have the teacher(s) be the listeners. 

It was that “listening” piece that led me to start thinking about using podcasts as a vehicle to share science stories. Most people describe themselves as “good listeners” but the truth is, listeningreally focusing on what someone is saying without thinking about what you expect them to say or what you want to say nextis really hard to do, and we all have to practice!  

I love technology but, as a rule, it has not been helpful for helping us build listening skills. Podcasts are an exception because the listener can really focus on the auditory experience and practice connecting to the stories and ideas that are presented. One of the things many of us have learned during COVID-19 is that podcasts can be an immersive experience, even without visual elements!

To me, podcasting is a form of digital storytelling, particularly if your podcast includes a speaker sharing a personal experience in a compelling way. However, “true” digital storytelling typically includes images and videos along with the story. Both formats are really valuable. I think focusing on language and listening is a helpful change from the focus on visual stimulation that we are getting from screens, but adding in images can make the story even more powerful. 

This semester, students in my courses are constructing ArcGIS StoryMaps in order to share their experiences in nature during COVID-19. Part of the goal of the project is to help give them a chance to practice doing phenology (observing and noting seasonal changes), and their photos have been a powerful way for them to do that. 

I think the project is having an additional positive impact, in that they are required to go outside a few times a week to take photos, observe, and reflect for a while, and I have encouraged them to use their nature journals as a way to share events and express feelings as well as observations. Many teachers and teacher educators are encouraging people to keep journals as historical evidence of our experiences during COVID-19, and I think these StoryMaps will be an example of a great way to combine history, science, and literacy. Since my students are all teacher candidates, I am hopeful that they will be able to take some of these tools and use them with their own students.

3. What is place-based education and how has it become more relevant lately?

Place-based education is the idea that lessons should be grounded in local or regional communities and natural environments, to help students feel connected to a “sense of place.” This is not a new idea, of course: Indigenous educational styles have long included an emphasis on connecting children to their natural environment, their people, and places.

What is relatively new is that educational researchers have been able to gather more evidence to support the idea that this approach to education has lasting value for students in ways that can be measured. One of the compelling things about place-based education is that it can be interwoven through all subject areas. It gives students (and teachers) an opportunity to identify their own strengths, and the strengths of their communities, to help them gain new skills and knowledge, which helps everyone feel more connected to each other.

Place-based education has special relevance right now since people are generally staying closer to home and not traveling. Many of us have been able to take this opportunity to really explore the place we are in and learn more about our families and our neighbors. This spring and summer I was able to spend a lot of time learning about local native wildflowers. It helps me feel connected when I get a chance to learn from and share my wonder with those who have lived here for a long time. 

It is important to have a global perspective, but sometimes taking the time to look inward to learn more about our own cultures and values can help us understand the viewpoints of others with more empathy. So perhaps this pandemic can be an opportunity for us to learn more about our place and ourselves so we can practice being better listeners to others.

Snowshoeing on the Stowe ski trails

Listen to some of examples of Personal Science Story Podcasts that came out of Associate Professor Frisch's classroom.

Learn more about UMD's Integrated Elementary and Special Education major.

For the media: contact Jennifer Frisch.