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

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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 (19) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

MIchele McConnell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a high school English teacher, a member of ASLE (The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment), and wife to a biologist/preserve manager, I am highly intrigued by SES.

I am constantly working to find ways to incorporate hands on studies like this in conjunction with my fellow science teachers; however, I am told quite often that the time it would take to set up any learning like this would deviate from standards based and testing instruction.

I would love to have a school like SES in San Diego. We do have a great plant population (the most diverse in the US). (If the school wants to expand out this way...)

However, as a wife of a biologist and a holder of a MA in Literacy and Reading, I am upset by the lack of texts. I know the video does not show everything. If we want to create more environmental study students, we should be opening their eyes to what it is like to read science text. It does not always have to be a text book. Science journals and research papers are much more difficult to sift through, but would serve as great mentor texts for those students. Also, in Southern California the Jepson Manual is used to help idea plants. The books being used by the students in the video are manuals for the "everyday curious" person who wants to know about plants in their back yard or local area. Why not teach them, with use of hand held microscopes and plant manuals?

The ideas are great, the working in the community and putting their ideas to fruition are awesome, but why not expand the learning? Go deeper. Then those kids could actually be in competition with their local colleges and universities!

Syreeta's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Courses that I am currently taking in college offer a lot of hands on experience. Children that are not capable of learining and comprehending from a textbook need a lot of hands on experience. Testing and education should not be limited to paper. Great idea!

Syreeta's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Students should not be limited to textbooks. Hands on experience is what the colleges are teaching future teachers to incorporate in the classroo. Learning should not be limited to pencil and paper. Great Idea!

thaobui's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At this kind of school students know what they want and getting the support what they need... This school not only provides students with academic knowledge but also social skills, life skills and confidence by taking class outdoors instead of sitting in class and listening.

Shane S's picture

Great program, but what can you do in a stagnant district that is not looking to build new schools and can't afford to retrofit? There are many exceptional outdoor education programs (at least in the state of CA) that give students a week long taste of this sort of experience. The methods they learn in that week often carry over back into their traditional classroom. See this study:

If you're in central or northern CA, attending a program like Mission Springs' will at least activate a love and respect of nature and science that students would not otherwise realize they had. Plus the team building skills and exploration methods they learn at science camp will carry over back into their "box" classroom... no expensive architect required.

Margaret L. Freeman's picture

Many students learn through tactile-kinesthetic means which would be addressed in a the Minnesota project-based environmental studies program. However, it would offer very little benefit to the students to experience only one week of this outdoor education and then return to the traditional classroom which is often rote, standards-based learning only to be forgotten after assessment. The Mission Springs' project offers a plethora of meaningful, problem-solving learning activities which is engaging and highly relevant to individual needs.

Margaret L. Freeman's picture

Working with a high school special needs population in a low socio-economic area, the majority of my students have poor academic skills and self-esteem. These issues would be effectively addressed in the Environmental Studies Program by providing problem-solving, relevant and an individualized approach to learning. Academic skills would be taught through content areas. Furthermore, students would benefit by developing social skills. An appreciation of the environment would be of value through the benefits of being outdoors and attaining a more healthy lifestyle conducive to lifelong learning.

angolawatson's picture

I think for getting vast knowledge on environmental studies,Project based learning programs are one of the most efficient media to understand theories from well-planned practical experiences.Interesting concept that emphasizes basically on practical learning programs.Escort Melbourne

Derek Pule's picture
Derek Pule
Distance Education Specialist

Great video, it just shows the depth and value of field trips. If I ran the world I would put children on field trips once a month to go explore the world around them.

sammamontana's picture

As discussed in the video, these EE programs are effective and useful for helping students develop problem solving skills. Not all EE is provided through non-profit programs or zoos/aquariums. As educators in any setting, how does data/information about student demographics help to change educational policy that puts a greater emphasis on the importance of EE?

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