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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Taking Class Outdoors with Environmental Education

The academic program at Minnesota's School for Environmental Studies was designed to promote project-based learning and a love for nature and wildlife. Read the article.
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Taking Class Outdoors with Environmental Education (Transcript)

Narrator: The sounds of spring in Apple Valley, Minnesota, rain falling, birds singing, and students learning.

Teacher: Open up "Find Wild Ginger." It's on page 59.

Narrator: These students at the School of Environmental Studies, just outside Minneapolis, are learning to identify the plants growing around a pond next to their school.

Teacher: Why do you think it says, "A base?”

Student: Like down towards the bottom, maybe the animals spread the seeds?

Teacher: Excellent.

Narrator: There won't be a multiple choice test on what they've learned, because there are few tests here. instead, they'll apply their knowledge later in the week when they conduct a survey of plant material for the City's Parks Department.

Student: Well, it looks like they're budding.

Narrator: This kind of hands-on exploration is part of the school's unique interdisciplinary approach to project-based learning in service of the community.

So there's red and black raspberry right here.


Dan: We're a two-year high school, eleventh and twelfth grade. And when kids come into the school, it's a little bit of a transition time coming into the school, because this is quite different. When the juniors come into the school, right away they're doing something called a pond profile. And we work with the local communities, and we have 20 ponds and lakes that we are monitoring every year since we've been open. And now this is our seventh year. And so the kids go out and do a chemical analysis of the water. They also will write a technical paper, and then they present their findings to the water commissioners from the local cities. And those people actually will be assessing the student work. And what we find is it really raises the bar for kids in their performance. And what we also find is that kids tend to remember what they've learned down the road, because they put so much effort into it, and they work with other students to create a high-end product.

Could use one more, I think.

We need way more.


Narrator: While the school offers courses in many different subjects, including art, and multi-media production, the environmental focus informs everything. From a video promoting the Minneapolis Zoo's Winter Monorail Ride, to this fish sculpture, made from recycled plastic bread tabs.

Craig: Having the environment as a core is a great foundation, because it's something that everyone is connected with.

Teacher: You can see that there's a large amount of debris in here, which you would expect in a [inaudible] pool.

Craig: A lot of the students are very involved in the outdoors. They go hiking. They go camping. They have a woods in their backyard. So it's a connection that they have with everything that they can build off of.

Teacher: So that would be one of the predators of the pond.

Amanda: I can't learn from a textbook. I can't concentrate. I just don't have the ability to concentrate like that. And here, with the hands-on activities that we do, and the integration of everything into our daily lives, it helps me observe the information a lot better.

Do guys see little holes in there?


What do you think made those holes?



Ants. What else?

Narrator: The students get a chance to apply what they've learned by doing community service work, like explaining the function of ecosystems to a group of first graders.

No, fungus is more like a mushroom-type.

Narrator: Involvement with the community was one of the guiding principles of the school when it was founded in 1995 in partnership with its neighbor, the Minnesota Zoo. SES students are engaged in a variety of activities at the zoo, from animal behavior studies to theater performances.

A zoo detective's job is both intriguing and complex.

Grant: They've been performing on weekends out here, "They Mystery of the Ravished Rainforest." It's a half-hour kids' show. Very interactive, very fun. Just try to make it real light, and hopefully get across an important message, which is that rainforests are worth conserving.

Go away! We don't want any more humans here. Go away! Get out of here!

Ahhhh! Detective!

Grant: I often find it fun to have these kids come to me with their ideas of what they want to do with the project, and then I try to show them, "Okay, that's a great idea, but let's see how it can work in the real world, you know?" And I think that's what the Zoo can do for them.

Lynda: You remember like a while ago, there was like something that looked like a battery?

Narrator: Lynda Staus is studying the behavior of the Zoo's Snow Monkeys, a project that earns her school credit while providing a valuable service to the Zoo.

Lynda: For example, I'll write down whether Niko, our only male, is mating with anyone. I'll write that down, and then I'll watch those girls to see whether they get bigger, or they seem to be treated differently. Because zookeepers use that information to tell whether or not they're going to be pregnant.

Grant: We can provide them with the resources, with the experts to help them kind of shape their ideas and grow. And I really think that's, you know, true education. That's how kids, you know, learn.

Tom: You know you're going to start at this point...

Narrator: In the nearby town of Eagan, Tom Goodwin's students are about to put their knowledge of plant material and trigonometry to the test.

Tom: And then from there, you're going to go into your plot, and you know...

Narrator: They would be working in small teams to identify plants, and measure the height of trees in a swatch of park land scheduled for recreational development.

Gregg: In any growing city, which Eagan is, where you seem to always have more work than we have staff to be able to do it, in my experience with the School Environment of Sciences has been that they've always provided a real top-notch, high-quality workload or data collection procedure.

Student: Sixty, again.

Elizabeth: They're actually going to use this information that we get. It's not just going out and doing a project, the teachers are going to grade it and that's it. It's something that the Eagan Parks and Wildlife is going to be able to use for years to come.

Wait. Two?


That's right here.

Narrator: Goodwin feels students gain much more than math and science skills working on projects like this.

Thomas: What it does for kids is gives them a great deal of confidence that they can do just about anything. They don't necessarily get better grades, but they develop this sense that this is worthwhile. And they also develop a sense about how they want to live. And what they want to do with their lives.

Thomas: So this is this year's growth of this plant.

Students: Oh!

Narrator: The SES hands-on approach to learning has caused Goodwin to redefine his role as teacher.

Thomas: I’m a facilitator. I'm a helper. I'm a coach. My relationship with them is much stronger.

Thomas: You have some other herbaceous plants like this one.

Student: Dandelion.

Thomas: Dandelion. And this one, do you know this one?

Student: Mullen.

Thomas: Right! Mullen.

Student: Okay.

Thomas: Their understanding of how the educational process works is much stronger. Their commitment to the process is much stronger. So that they come in here as students, and they become learners.

Student: What are you doing for your IDP?

Student: Site development.

Narrator: When they're not working in the field, students are working in a unique schoolhouse, designed from the ground up with the learner in mind.

Dan: Typically, in a school, you'll build boxes and then you decide what to teach in the boxes. We had an opportunity to design our entire program.

Craig: If you're going to talk about reworking the entire curriculum and moving large chunks around, no, I'm not comfortable with that. If you're...

Dan: We talked about how kids would learn best. So the whole focus was on student learning and their learning needs. We talked about some of the learning episodes that would occur. sometimes it would be larger groups, sometimes smaller, or sometimes it would be kids working in teams. And then once we fleshed out our entire two-year program, then we went to the architect and said, "We want a building that will meet our expectations for how kids are going to learn best, and then design the building to support it.

Narrator: Renowned school architect, Bruce Jilk, designed SES.

Bruce: The organization of our bricks and mortar does, in fact, influence our behaviors. And if you put 30 kids and a teacher in a 900-square foot room, guess what? The teacher is going to take control, and is going to start lecturing. So we needed to break that mold or model for this school. So just by the fact that there aren't classrooms here. That the students, they're organized into small groups, brings on a different behavior. And it's one that really is designed to focus on the learner.

Dan: The school is very much a personalized learning environment. Each student has their own workstation. There are pods of ten students working together. And we use a house concept where 100 students are in a house with those same set of teachers for the entire year. And so by creating that sense of personalization, by having the flexibility of space, we've really been able to have quite a variety of learning that takes place.

Student: Is this your manual right here that you created?

Student: This is the beginning workings of the manual. It's called "The Safe School Handbook." And...

Narrator: In the Forum Space, students share their individual research projects with their peers and community members, some of whom help grade their presentations.

Student: Driving an SUV has a much greater impact on the environment than driving most other passenger cars. Much of this is due to standards for SUVs that are less stringent than those of smaller passenger cars.

Narrator: At the culmination of their studies, seniors deliver speeches on the subjects of their final projects.

Student: People putting too many bad chemicals into the water, and just letting it go down, so it just sits and poisons the fish. And through biological magnification, the Tiger Heron is then poisoned, because it eats the fish.

Narrator: Some report their findings from research trips to threatened ecosystems from Alaska and Mexico. Others focus on issues that have become their personal passion.

Student: Our recreational use.

Student: There's actually 230 endangered species that live in our national forests.

Narrator: But all of their work reflects the pride and confidence that comes from putting knowledge into action.

Student: Write to someone in government, and tell them that, "I don't want you to be logging our forests. We need to protect this resource." Sign a petition.

Amanda: If you look around at this school, you'll see so many confident people walking around with their heads held high, and they know what they want. And they're getting the support that they need.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to edutopia.org.

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Diane Curtis
  • Leigh Iacobucci


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Erik Prentnieks
  • Brent Hamilton


  • Gary Williams
  • © 2002
  • The George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • All rights reserved.

Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sasa Jevtic's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Project-Based Learning
Super idea!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is really great!

Mary Kay Myrmel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My daughter attended & graduated from this school and is very successful. The program that SES delivers really builds confidence and a thirst for learning in their students.
Thanks for profiling such a wonderful staff.

Cecilia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Both my sons, Zac Wendler (2003) and Andy Wendler (2005) graduated from this wonderul school. Both are Eagle Scouts, one of whom provided his project to the school grounds.

Zac is now in graduate school at Northern Illinois University, teaching English while he pursues his Masters' and PhD in English and Creative Writing. Andy is finishing community college and hope to transfer to the University of Minnesota. Both boys were greatly shaped by the excellent faculty and curriculum at the Zoo School. This video reminds me well that they wer SO LUCKY to have this resource available to them. Thank you to everyone involved in continuing the excellence in high school education that this school exemplifies.

Thank you!

Kelsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This school is such an amazing place! I have known many people who are atteding or graduated from this school. I am hoping to attend this school when I am a junior ( I am currently a freshman). I have been resarching the school a little harder lately because my high school is going to now offer extra off camus art classes, which made me ownder if i would want to stay there. But the more I look into this school the more I love it and I cannot wait to go!!!!! I would never pass up the wonderfull opportunity to go to such a unique school like this one where I can be me!

Conny Jensen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This school would have been a life saver for my daughter who showed an interest in nature from age three and became environmentally savvy not much later!
Traditional schooling did not help her reach her potential and she dropped out of 10th grade with a 1.0 GPA.

Was she really that bad of a student? No, far from it!!! She managed to go on to college where she took Environmental Studies for her minor and Philosophy for her major and carried a 4.0 GPA! If you provide an opportunity to students where they can love what and how they learn they will succeed!

Michael E. Russell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"I can't Learn from a text book" - student
"They don't necessarily get better grades." = Teacher
"I'm not a teacher, I'm a coach." - educator

This is weak.
Can these kid's even read and write?
They don't understand trig, and their sloppy work seems dangerous if government is relying upon it.
Sounds like a place where children with various learning disabilities and attention deficit problems are given light work and passed without learning.

We got real problems with public education, they waste money in MN on this experiment.
Spend extra money, go to private school.

Ken Ellis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Staff comment:

Mr. Russel,
Re your comments-

"I can't learn from a text book" - student

This seems to be an often voiced sentiment. At least the student is self-aware, and has found her own way to learn.

"They don't necessarily get better grades." = Teacher

I believe the teacher was making the point that, while his students don't necessarily do better than others on standardized tests, the actually know something once they have completed a project.

"I'm not a teacher, I'm a coach." - educator

This teacher was making the point that a good teacher often plays the role of coach, assisting in the process of discovery and understanding, rather than giving directions and administering tests.

Context is important. I believe that if you were afforded a chance to sit in on some of the SES student's project presentations, as we were, you might agree that these kids can read and write, and that their work is relevant and rigorous.

Ken Ellis, Executive Producer, Edutopia Video

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