Teaching Science Outdoors Project

Project Overview

Teaching Science Outdoors (TSO) is a professional development program for elementary school teachers housed at Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station. The goal of this project is to increase the ability of teachers to use the outdoors—whether in their schoolyard, neighborhood, or community—as a component of doing strong science teaching aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).


Big Ideas

What is TSO?

Teaching Science Outdoors is a professional development (PD) program for kindergarten through fifth grade teachers interested in taking their students and science teaching outdoors. Located at Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) in Southwest Michigan, teachers can enjoy the summer weather on its beautiful grounds while participating in this PD. Each session is one week long with activities planned for about seven hours each day. Teams of 2-3 educators per school/district are encouraged, as a lot of the work is collaborative. One goal of TSO is to help teachers incorporate the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which have been adopted by the state as the Michigan Science Standards (MSS), into their lesson plans. During the week, teachers develop or adapt a lesson to teach their students that includes an outdoor component.

Why do we need TSO?

Outdoor education encourages students to explore, investigate, and learn about natural phenomena. It also has many goals and possible outcomes in the cognitive, affective, and social domains. However, teachers often find it difficult to move the classroom outdoors. With new expectations for science education from the NGSS and MSS, Teaching Science Outdoors offers the chance for teachers to become familiar with the new standards and learn how to incorporate the outdoors into their lessons.

TSO is specifically focused on elementary school teachers, primarily second through fifth grade, and will send them home with lessons and strategies that can be used in their classroom. Also, the training they will receive during the week will teach them to navigate the NGSS and MSS on their own, which will be useful when planning future curricular materials. Finally, TSO aims to inform educators about “reducing the novelty space.” This is a concept from informal education. Taking students out of the classroom for learning experiences introduces many distractions. However, teachers will learn how to prepare students in order to maximize learning during outdoor activities.

In summary, Teaching Science Outdoors will enable teachers to:

  • Experience outdoor inquiry learning
  • Use technology throughout the inquiry process
  • Experience team collaborative learning
  • Develop school-based learning units in line with NGSS


What is Inquiry-based Learning?

Inquiry-based learning, or inquiry learning, removes the emphasis on teachers and places it on students. It is based on the idea that it is more beneficial for students to understand their everyday world by formulating questions, investigating to find answers, building new understandings, and communicating their findings with others, than to simply present them with facts and expect them to understand. Through this method, the role of the teacher is to guide students throughout the process and encourage them to come to an answer by themselves. Though this method could have a positive impact on science education, many teachers lack the pedagogical knowledge to implement inquiry-based learning in their own classrooms. This is where TSO comes in.


The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been adopted by the state of Michigan as the Michigan Science Standards (MSS). NGSS aims to shift the focus of science towards exploring, examining, and explaining how and why phenomena occur and towards understanding how to design solutions to problems. In classrooms using NGSS, lessons will be less centered on teacher instruction and memorizing facts and more on student exploration and knowledge application. In addition, both inquiry-based learning and outdoor education are in line with NGSS.

This professional development program is intended to help teachers understand how these new standards fit into their classrooms. Lessons and activities during TSO will cover performance expectations, 3-dimensional learning concepts, and the ideas of coherence and asking good questions. By the end of the program, teachers will have developed the skills to adapt existing science curriculum for the outdoor classroom and to conduct active research on their own pedagogy.

Developing Lessons

During this week-long summer workshop, teachers will develop their own lessons aligned with NGSS that includes outdoor place-based components/activities. Project leaders are hopeful that the hands-on, heads-on, hearts-on approach of this PD will help participating teachers feel more confident in implementing these type of lessons.

Teachers will also learn about the three important stages for planning and writing a meaningful outdoor learning unit:

  • Preparation in school for the outdoor activity (introduction)
  • Outdoor Inquiry Activity (field trip or outdoor activity)
  • Classroom Connections/Wrap-Up (indoor activity that includes data analysis, making conclusions, and science communication)

This approach is crucial to reducing the novelty space for students and integrating outdoor learning with classroom instruction.

Teachers will be supported in carrying out an entire cycle of curriculum development, enactment, and assessment as participants of Teaching Science Outdoors. Having guidance in creating outdoor lessons that incorporate NGSS will hopefully provide a solid example of how they can design lessons in the future.

TSO Activities and Investigations

Most of the work during Teaching Science Outdoors is takes place in teams and small groups made up of teachers from the same school or from the same grade across schools. Outdoor activities called “Investigations” are aligned with NGSS elementary standards and provide strategies that can be used in  lesson plans. Teachers will explore both landscaped and “wild” areas and investigate insects, birds, and other living organisms in prairies, gardens, and aquatic settings.

Action Research

Teachers also learn about and practice during TSO how to conduct action research. This type of research is reflective. Action research is done in order to inform and improve the researcher’s practice by asking critical questions and collecting data in a consistent way. In doing so, the researcher can answer meaningful questions about his or her work. This research can be done individually or collaboratively, depending on the questions being asked. Action research follows this cycle:

  • Asking a question and preparing
  • Data collection and analysis
  • Conclusion and a further cycle

By encouraging the use of action research, TSO empowers teachers to evaluate the effectiveness of their applications of outdoor education into their curriculums and assess areas of improvement.

Networking and Accumulating Resources

TSO offers more than just a stipend, practice using the MSS in existing lesson plans, and the chance to explore the outdoors on the KBS grounds. It is an invaluable opportunity to build a network of support with colleagues. Participating teachers will have access to web-based resources and monthly webinars to share their experiences with other participants and the leadership team. They also have access to the KBS K-12 Partnership programs and are invited to plan a field trip for their students to KBS.

Schoolyard Assessment and Improvement Grants

TSO teachers will have the opportunity to do a schoolyard assessment and apply for a schoolyard improvement grant. A schoolyard assessment entails a visit from professionals at KBS and the Kalamazoo Nature Center. They will comb the school grounds meticulously, highlighting different areas that might be good for teaching lessons or specific areas of interest. This information is compiled on a Google Map with notes and markings that make every outdoor element in the surrounding area clear. The map is then made available to the teachers and school administrators, who may choose to apply for a schoolyard improvement grant.

Thanks to funding from the EPA, a total of $22,750 will be available for teachers/districts who participate in the 2016 TSO program. Each district can receive a maximum of $5000 to improve its schoolyard based on the findings of the schoolyard assessments.


The TSO Curriculum

During the week, teachers participate in multiple field investigations and practice data collection and analysis techniques that can be incorporated into existing curriculum. Technology is used in the form of an interactive website and iPads with a variety of freely available apps.

Time is provided in the schedule and teachers are supported in carrying out an entire cycle of curriculum development, enactment, and assessment to enhance reflective practice including collaborative action research on various aspects of their projects (and by that will be empowered to use the outdoors as a teaching lab; and will develop reflective practice skills).

In addition to the NGSS, several pedagogical principles, known in the fields of outdoor and environmental education, are introduced. These include the three stage model (preparation-fieldwork-wrap-up), reducing the “novelty space”, and the integration of Hands-on, Heads-on and Hearts-on (3-H) components to increase learning and engagement.


TSO Partners

Teaching Science Outdoors is a collaborative effort involving CREATE for STEM Institute at MSU, MSU’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and the Kalamazoo Nature Center. Notable individuals involved in the project include Dr. Tali Tal, Christina Schwarz, Joe Krajcik, Renee Bayer, Deborah Peek-Brown,  Kara Haas, and Jenny Metz Brenneman. These workshops have been funded by the Environmental Protection Agency , CREATE for STEM, and private donors. KBS has also received the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Environmental Education Grant for the years of 2016-17.


TSO Milestones

The Teaching Science Outdoors program has continued to evolve each year since its conception. Four cohorts of 12-15 elementary teachers attended TSO during the past three years. Most of the teachers came from nearby rural and urban school districts and some, in years 2 and 3, came from farther away. Their teaching experience varied from 2 to 15 years. The vast majority teach science with no particular background in science. Additionally, TSO 2016 has been expanded and includes two sessions instead of one.


Design Principles

The principles used to guide the development of the program include:

  • Activities will be outdoors, inquiry-based, open-ended and place-based
  • Activities will be aligned with NGSS
  • Collaborative learning strategies will be used in outdoor investigations, in designing school-based units, and in action research
  • Technology in the outdoors and in the classroom will be used in context to support learning
  • Activities will be Hands-on, Heads-on and Hearts-on


Links to the Next Generation Science Standards

Teaching Science Outdoors is designed to introduce teachers to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and how to use the resources available to them. Here are a few examples of performance expectations that the TSO curriculum prepares participants to teach:

  • K-ESS3-1. Use a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants and animals (including humans) and the places they live.
  • 1-LS1-1. Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs.
  • 2-LS4-1. Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats.
  • 3-LS4-3. Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.
  • 4-ESS2-1. Make observations and/or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation.
  • 5-ESS2-1. Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.

More information can be found on the Kellogg Biological Station's website.