Outdoor Science Education at Risk From COVID-19

Outdoor science education is a field at risk, according to a new study. Find out why, and what we can do to preserve this vital experience for our youth.

When I was a teenager, I took part in a youth camp one summer. A prominent person around town owned a large property in the Hockley Valley, where he grew Christmas trees as a hobby.

He gave the group permission to camp in the woods there. A young woman who lived up the street from me organized the trip.

It was an excellent experience for all of us who attended. We learned about camping skills, ecology, orienteering and stargazing. Naturally, we also sang songs together around the campfire every evening.

Especially Meaningful for Inner City Youth

I think that experiences like this are essential for young people. They’re especially meaningful for inner-city youth who lack the opportunity or the means to get out into the natural world and realize their connection with it.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, seem to agree with me. They’re concerned that about 4 million young people in the United States are missing out on outdoor science education trips due to the pandemic.

That number could shoot up to 11 million by the end of the year if services stay closed. Even worse, 63% of those organizations aren’t sure that they’ll ever reopen again.

63% of Organizations May Never Reopen

Rena Dorph is the director of Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS), a prominent developer of K-12 science curricula. Here’s how she expressed her concerns.

“This is happening at a time when public health leaders are promoting the value of outdoor learning as safe, engaging, effective and essential. The outdoors is a resource for learning, engagement and health, and it should be available to all.”

The study shows that the loss from these closings will fall disproportionally on marginalized groups. These will include students of colour and low-income families.

Loss Will Fall on Marginalized Groups

School districts where many of these disadvantaged groups live are the most likely to lose outdoor education programs. It’s important to realize that most environmental education takes place outside the classroom.

Genuine learning about nature happens in places like residential outdoor science schools, nature centers, parks and zoos. LHS’s Associate Director Craig Strang explained, “Resource-strapped organizations tell us they will need to forego initiatives to promote equitable and inclusive workplaces, and even perhaps to halt subsidized programming, scholarships, fee waivers, transportation grants and community partnerships in favour of paying customers.”

“There are things we can do to prevent that,” he added. The National Science Foundation funded the study, which included a nationwide survey of outdoor education programs.

Nationwide Survey of Outdoor Science Education Programs

Just under 1,000 organizations took part in the survey. They were mainly non-profit and government agencies, representing 49 states and the District of Columbia.

The quarantine has meant that these organizations have lost more than $600 million in revenue. That has forced them to lay off about 30,000 workers.

About 30% of these outdoor facilities say that it’s “highly likely” that they will never reopen. Between a third and two-thirds of the outdoor science education field will vanish if these trends continue.

“An Essential Part of the Education System”

Strang pointed out that, “Outdoor science and environmental learning organizations are an essential part of the education system.” The study calls for outdoor science education to receive a higher priority in government budgets.

The policy brief also encourages more “intentional coordination” between state and local education agencies. Another option mentioned in the report is to move outdoor educators into school classrooms.

The study also recommends that education agencies target funding for marginalized groups. Subsidies might offset the predicted loss of outdoor science education in these communities.

Disadvantaged Groups Tend Not to Have Careers in Ecology

This matters in the long run because, at the moment, disadvantaged groups tend not to have careers in ecology. Governments claim they’re interested in gaining more equity, inclusion, cultural relevance and social justice in the sciences. Here’s their chance.

On the other hand, if they allow the predicted collapse to happen, the gains that communities have made so far will disappear along with the outdoor science education centres. That would be tragic.

Strang went on to say that the centres, “offer solutions to challenges the schools are currently facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and need to be considered as key partners in developing funding priorities, health policies and guidelines for opening schools and delivering educational programming.

Being Outdoors is Good for People

As we’ve said in these pages before, the research shows that being outdoors is good for people. It improves their education and their mental and physical well-being. 

As readers might expect, teaching about nature works better in a natural setting. It helps kids learn faster and retain what they’ve learned much longer.

On a personal level, these outdoor experiences tend to improve students’ attitudes toward school in general. They also feel a healthier interconnectedness with nature and the environment. 

The lack of environmental awareness is a concern, particularly in the United States. Bridging this knowledge gap is urgent because both the extinction crisis and the climate crisis will demand critical decision making from a well-informed public.

Improved Environmental Stewardship Five Years Later

According to the study, we can even measure the difference that outdoor science education makes. Learners continue to show improved environmental stewardship and a smaller carbon footprint even five years after taking part in a program.

Some previous studies have even shown that these programs lead indirectly to improved water and air quality in communities. There’s also a statistical connection to improved biodiversity.

Reading this study, it’s pretty clear that the field of outdoor science education is “on the bubble.” This kind of teaching may well go extinct.

Possible that this Kind of Education Will Go Extinct

That would be ironic because the virus that caused the pandemic seems to have emerged because of human encroachment on natural habitats. As we’ve explained in a previous story, the novel diseases we’ve been experiencing lately often come from habitat destruction.

State and local education authorities, and the public have to act on these findings. Otherwise, COVID-19 might wipe out our best hope to stop our destructive land use. 

Nature writer Rachel Carson wrote that we should lead every child to find, “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Pandemic could decimate environmental, outdoor science education programs
A Field at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on Environmental and Outdoor Science Education
Mass Extinction Happening Again
Benefits of Nature Confirmed by Science
Habitat Destruction Spreads Novel Diseases


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