Teaching & Learning

Nature's Classroom: Bringing the Outdoors into Learning

Instructors addressing a class of 4th graders at 2019 Natural Resource Field Days. Credit: Lael Gilbert/Utah State University.

Getting your shoes wet is optional, a teacher shouted as an enthusiastic mob of fourth-graders moved past her, prancing along the edge of a slow-moving Logan River. The students squatted, turning over rocks and poking in the shallows, searching for stonefly casements. One excitedly pointed out a tiny cluster of gravel stuck on the underside of a flat stone.

“Aquatic insects help us to know about the health of the river,” the adult volunteer explained. “Healthy environments have a lot of different kinds of insects, and polluted environments only have a few kinds.”

This was one stop for these students during the 20th annual Natural Resources Field Days in Logan Canyon, sponsored by the USU College of Natural Resources.

For two decades, Natural Resource Field Days has pulled Logan and Cache County students from their classrooms to learn more about the place they live. In the shady comfort of Guinevah-Malibu campground, this year’s program gave fourth grade students hands-on experience in ecosystem science including water quality, population dynamics and avian migration. Experts and university volunteers spend two weeks each year teaching kids about wildlife, soils, plants and watersheds. Approximately 2,500 students will participate this year.

A volunteer squatted in the grass, demonstrating why rabbit tracks look so different when the animal is moving along leisurely, or sprinting from a predator. A bird expert herded students across a field, having them “migrate” as he defined different types of wetlands, and encouraging them to avoid obstacles like drought and death.

“Our focus is on science and natural systems. We teach kids how things work, and are supposed to work,” said Chris Luecke, dean of the College of Natural Resources. 

The goal of the Field Days program is to help kids understand the connections between different parts of the environment, how to protect the places they live, and to have some fun, he said. The more positive experiences kids have in natural places, the more likely they’ll be to care about them, and to make smart decisions for them in the future. 

Environmental education programs that incorporate classroom and field-based instruction are more effective than either one alone, said Luecke. Programs that empower students with this kind of hands-on knowledge can make a bigger difference than simply reading the information off the page, he said. 

This year students had plenty of opportunities to get their hands-on new experiences, including manhandling animal skulls, stroking pelts and using a suction tube and a dichotomous key to identify aquatic insects.

Fourth graders aren’t the only ones picking up new information about the natural environment. Hands-on learning is helping teachers better understand these systems … and to pass on that knowledge on longer-term to students. This ultimately helps kids to hold on to what they know more permanently, said Luecke. High-quality environmental education helps people to make connections in their own life, incorporates lots of different perspectives, and engages them as problem solvers, he said.

4th graders discovering aquatic insects. Credit: Lael Gilbert/Utah State University.


Traci Hillyard
Public Information Officer
S. J. Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources



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