Study says outdoor ed beneficial for youths

By Tom Carney Correspondent

Madison, Wis.–A recent study administered by the California
Department of Education concluded that “at-risk” students who
participate in outdoor educational programs increase their science
test scores and show long-term improvement in a variety of personal
and social skills. This confirms beliefs long held by a Michigan
educator.

Martin LeBlanc, Inside the Outdoors project director for the
Sierra Club which helped underwrite the study, discussed it during
the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America
held in Madison, Wis., June 18-21. The study showed that students
from mostly Hispanic elementary schools who participated in
week-long, residential outdoor science programs near Fresno,
Calif., raised their science scores by 27 percent.

“We expected some positive indicators, but we were shocked with
the results. We were blown away,” LeBlanc said.

“I see that response every day,” said Gary Williams, the 4-H
natural resources extension educator for Michigan State University
Extension. He works with students in the Detroit school district
through the Great Lakes Education program.

“This spring we handled over 1,800 students and I was talking
with one of the veteran teachers — those who have been with us for
at least three years. He told us that the math and science MEAP
scores of his students increased,” Williams said.

LeBlanc said he’s “seen it first person. I’m glad the study
backed up my observations. I used to work with at-risk students in
outdoors education. These were kids who had poorly developed
learning skills or ADD, things like that. In class, they were the
biggest problems. But outdoors, they became leaders.”

Williams recognizes a similar evolution and tried to put his
finger on the reason.

“More than anything, discipline and respect are key elements to
any successful outdoor education program,” he said. “You see the
students extend those qualities to others. You see them develop.
You see them and say, ‘Now you’re a leader.’ “

LeBlanc said the three different California programs chosen for
the students are a good fit with the state’s environmental
education standards. These workshops were designed to “foster
stewardship of the environment and an appreciation of the
importance of the wise use of natural resources.” In addition to
the gains they made in the classroom, participants demonstrated
such appreciation through long-term “positive environmental
behaviors,” such as recycling at home.

Students also exhibited gains in personal and social areas such
as self-esteem, conflict resolution, cooperation, leadership, and
their relationships with their teachers. The study found this
especially noteworthy among the 58 percent of the participants
identified as “English Learner students,” those for whom English is
a second language. In these interpersonal categories as well as in
their motivation to learn, these students demonstrated gains “that
were significantly larger than those shown by non-EL students.”

The Great Lakes Education Program differs from those used in the
California study in a couple of ways. It is not a residential
program, and the time afield is much, much shorter. Bracketed
between a classroom introduction and in-class follow-up discussions
and experiments is a two-and-a-half hour cruise on a “passenger
vessel we turn into a classroom,” Williams said. Motoring on either
the Detroit River or Lake Erie, students engage in activities at a
number of stations on the boat.

Williams said teachers tell him that students’ interest in
science has increased. They make comments that children are more
engaged in science and math because of his program.

He also suggests such programs should be extended to many more
students for two reasons.

“Look at a city like ours,” Williams said. “They’re all at risk.
I think in this day and time any child who lives in urban America
has the potential to be at risk. In this ever-changing society we
find more and more at-risk students, some that are readily
apparent, some that are not so apparent.”

Also, based on changes he’s seen in students in recent years,
Williams suggests a more inventive approach to teaching, one that
might make his type of program suitable for all.

“The 21st century student we are coming into contact with is
different from what we’ve come in contact with previously,” he
said. “We have to change our message to get them engaged, to keep
them engaged, and to stimulate them to want more. The days of
lecturing them — Whew! Those days are gone.

“They can get instant education with computers and the Internet,
but they have no one to interpret it or to help them understand.
And that’s the job of 21st century educators.”

For more information about the Great Lakes Education Project, go
to http://miseagrant.umich.edu/glep/

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