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Project-Based Learning (PBL)

7 Tips for Exploring Environmental Science Through Project-Based Learning

The National Park Service has great resources for students to do real environmental science work—even if they don’t visit a park.

April 14, 2021
Student makes notes during outdoor science experiment
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

Research supports what project-based learning (PBL) practitioners and advocates have always known: PBL works—and how well it works is measurable. This is especially exciting for science teachers. PBL is often a natural fit with science frameworks such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) because PBL helps facilitate experimentation, which emulates the work that real scientists do.

Many science teachers, including those whom I’ve had the privilege of coaching in PBL, have had the same burning question: How can I get my students to do what environmental scientists do while learning remotely? Even as we slowly reopen, this remains a relevant concern for teachers who want to integrate authentic science processes into their teaching.

A distance learning context creates barriers to hands-on learning like the kind that takes place in labs. But these same conditions also produce opportunities. While students learn remotely, environmental scientists continue to do their work outside. And one organization that makes this work accessible is the National Park Service (NPS).

NPS preserves the natural and cultural heritage of our country, but the its mission also advocates educating future generations through science. Conservation projects, management challenges, and educational programs that NPS scientists and rangers publish form the basis for authentic lessons and experiments that can be used for free by anyone in the world—and that means they’re useful for classroom learning for anyone who doesn't live near a national park.

Resources like the National Park Service are excellent tools for teachers interested in connecting their PBL units with outdoor experts and activities.

7 Ways to Get Started

1. Use the NPS portal for educators: This portal designed specifically for educators hosts over 1,100 lessons, many created by environmental science professionals and aligned to the NGSS framework. Look for lessons that provide field data or reports that students can analyze or interpret. For instance, one lesson is focused on predicting the effects of climate change.

2. Activate distance learning programs: NPS groups across the country have long offered distance learning programs, and the number has grown this past year as in-person visits have decreased. Larger parks, such as Grand Canyon National Park, offer state-of-the-art programs that are in high demand, but sometimes a quick phone call or email might connect you with a ranger willing to support student inquiry processes.

3. Set up virtual field trips: To engage visitors during closures, many parks developed online field trips. The National Park Foundation has catalogued invitations to exploration with its Virtual Passport program. Resources such as a guided hike for Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site can become entry points for projects on habitats, animal adaptations, and other topics.

4. Enrich lessons with multimedia resources: Recorded programs are excellent sources of outside expertise. Learning about scientific concepts or knowledge that rangers rely on to support conservation work can be enhanced with multimedia projects. In addressing the effects of humans’ impact on the environment or understanding relationships between living organisms, teachers can supplement lessons with visuals or short videos on national ecosystems.

5. Offer participation in virtual Junior Ranger programs: Younger visitors to parks enjoy earning Junior Ranger badges by demonstrating the knowledge they have gathered during their trip. Several of these programs, many of which cover a wide range of scientific topics, are available online. You can use the resources to fill out your projects or offer them to students as extension opportunities. Many units will even let students mail in completed packets in exchange for a badge.

6. Encourage students to work like scientists: The NGSS isn’t just a checklist of content goals. It codifies science and engineering practices used by professional scientists that help students understand how science is done in the real world. It is sometimes tricky to teach and assess these, especially in a remote setting, but using tools from the projects the parks service provides creates excellent opportunities.

Students can analyze soundscape data to learn how scientists use that to measure biodiversity and preserve wilderness. They can also engage in arguments based on naked-eye records of the night sky to determine the health of ecosystems, or read articles about how geochemical tracing is used to track the movement of threatened species and communicate findings in a way that others can understand. All of these ideas can support existing projects or be expanded upon to create all new ones.

7. Adapt park solutions for communities: Parks are open-air laboratories and playgrounds for environmental scientists to study and/or solve problems. Students can take this same approach in their own neighborhoods. For example, teachers can ask students to learn about the science used to develop the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERT) in order to create a watershed plan for their own region. Or they could read reports on the pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Southwest and take on the role of advisers to help protect their own local forests threatened by increased human activity and climate stressors. Or they can read about success stories like Shenandoah National Park’s ability to address air quality and see if similar approaches could solve issues in their own neighborhoods.

While remote learning has its challenges, with the right tools teachers and students can still learn and experiment through project-based learning.

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  • Environmental Education
  • Science

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