SS330: Experiential Curriculum Design is a requirement for Outdoor Education majors and attracts students from other majors interested in pursuing education. Following in the steps of John Dewey and other educators like him, the Experiential Curriculum Design (ECD) class explores the cognitive and social foundations of an interactive learning environment. Throughout the course, students develop and implement lesson plans for in class use and external projects; because of this, the course is very dependent on student participation and facilitation. Experiential Curriculum Design is a course that places students into the role of educator. Other courses within the major that include teaching experiences are: Challenge Course, Environmental Education, and Foundations of Outdoor Education.

The external project for this year’s class was the continuation of the partnership between Sterling’s ECD course and Craftsbury Academy’s ninth grade Earth Science class. Over the course of four classes, the ECD students experimented and experienced the process of creating and implementing curriculum with a real audience. A key person in this endeavor is Craftsbury Academy science teacher – Carly Brown. Not only does Carly allow us access to her students, but provides valuable feedback and guidance in terms of curriculum development, critical feedback, and professional discourse.

The following are significant insights from the fall 2015 Experiential Curriculum Design class that reflect on the class overall, as well as specific references to our involvement with the Earth Science class. “The Power of Observation” was written by Gerry Holmes – an Outdoor Education major. “Step By Step” was scripted by Weylin Garnett – also an Outdoor Education major. “Testimonials” was developed and summarized by Nelly Detra – an Environmental Studies major. The concluding piece consists of observations and insights shared by Carly Brown.

The Power Of Observation by Gerry Holmes

Some people walk by a place for years, or perhaps a whole lifetime, and don’t notice what’s around them: plants, insects, and weather patterns. We decided to tie in observation of plants and seasonal changes to the 9th grade earth science curriculum at neighboring Craftsbury Academy in the hopes of getting the students to look more carefully at the ground they walk on every day.

Thinking back over my life, I am surprised at how recently I really started observing the world around me. Even now, I am not as aware of my surroundings as I could be. More than anything, however, I have found that going outside opens up that awareness and makes me more focused. That is a big part of why I was excited about the curriculum that we brought to the Academy. For the most part, it seemed as though the days when we were outside and moving around were the days when the students were the most excited and engaged in what they were learning.

I think it was really a valuable experience for both the Academy students to learn about observation and for the Sterling students to create a curriculum for a variety of learning styles. It was very powerful to be able to brainstorm a curriculum, take it to the school, and implement it with real students. We then reflected on that experience, and developed new curricula based on what we learned. And there’s the Experiential Learning Cycle in action, folks.

Step By Step by Weylin Garnett.

The first step of our process was to come up with something that would be relevant to the ninth grade Earth Science class. None of us from Sterling were science majors, but we all did have some experience with plants and trees, as we are either outdoor education majors or because we are interested in the different properties and uses of plants. We decided that we could tie in observation skills very well with plant identification.

We started every class with a daily icebreaker activity designed to get us interacting with the students and get everyone loosened up. We chose from a series of name games and other semi-competitive games—all fun and good-natured. The first class we led had us all go out onto the land and tag an unknown plant, observe it in relation to its environment, as well as where it was in its growth. Was it going to seed? Was it just sprouting? Was it already dying? After being in the field, we returned to the classroom and planned to return some weeks later and reexamine the tagged plants for any changes.

In the second class, we followed a similar theme of going on a plant walk, but this time with a title “The Uncommon Common.” The Common is the center of the village of Craftsbury—it is a large grassy field ringed by fences and trees that everyone uses, both the public and Craftsbury schools. The idea with calling the common “uncommon” was that it had many plant species that are unnoticed by the untrained eye, so we put together a scavenger hunt that described local plants and had the students group up and search for them. This definitely got the students looking at the Common in a new way, and there were surprises about how many plants besides grass grew right outside their school’s doors.

For our third session, we brought in several branches from local shrubs and trees as well as a number of Peterson’s field guides and taught the class how to identify specimens. We had several tables set up and groups of four students would circulate and go through the identification process. This was definitely the most challenging day for most of the students, but it got them looking very closely at the anatomy of the plants. We were very glad to see one student in particular take a great liking to the process and was looking up plants during non-class time.

For our final day, the plan was to tie everything together and to head back to our original spot and re-observe the tagged plants. We observed the plants and made several inferences as to why they changed. One group noticed that the plant they picked [bedstraw] was completely dead;  however, there were still several live plants right around it. Upon being asked why they thought that some were still alive but this one was not, the students came up with the possibility that this particular plant had browned because it had already gone to seed, giving the last of its energy to the seeds, while the other green shoots had not yet seeded. It was confirmed by one of the Sterling students that this was very well the case, as many plants will die after the seeding process. Success for the students in observation skills!

Overall, our experience working with the ninth graders was very good, and they definitely learned some observational and identification skills. However, there were also challenges. We had to fit our whole lesson into a mere forty minutes, which we all felt was a very short time to learn something. We were also working with an age group that presents its own challenges, with which none of us were very experienced. They were a great class of students, but getting around shyness and quietness was definitely a challenge. Trying to determine what would best serve the educational needs of ninth graders posed an intriguing challenge.

Testimonials by Nelly Detra

It was hard to tell what impact we had with such a short period of time. We had high expectations, and we followed through with our plans to the best of our abilities, but how could we really know if the students got anything out of our visits? Certainly, the experience would vary from student to student, but we wanted to get an overall sense of our impact.

For the last of our four sessions at Craftsbury Academy, we created a feedback form for the students to fill out. We passed it out to individuals, and we got a wide variety of responses. A lot of people loved the scavenger hunt, and disliked the day learning to use the field guides, and we thought we were onto something—but then one or two surveys revealed enjoyment with the field guides and a dislike with going outside. This really proves that everyone has their own learning style as well as their own set of optimal learning conditions. It really drove home the fact that when you are curriculum planning, one should plan for all learning styles, or else you will have students that don’t get the full benefit of the course.

Here are some responses we received from the students:

What was your favorite activity?

  • Learning to use the field guide, because it is a skill that I will use a lot now.
  • I liked going outside the most. It was a good change from sitting inside all day.
  • I liked the first and last days the best because I like to get outside and explore nature.

What was your least favorite activity?

  • Probably when we had to use the books to identify plants and trees.
  • I don’t think I had a least favorite activity.
  • My least favorite activity is this paper because I don’t like paperwork.

How was working in small groups for you?

  • I liked working in small groups. It made it so everyone’s voice was heard.
  • I liked the groups, but I wish they were larger. I enjoy working with more people.

How can you take what you have learned and apply it to the rest of the semester?

I know that you need to be able to observe any time when we use the scientific method like when we are doing a lab.

I got better at observations, something I will definitely need for the rest of the year.

We also received this feedback from Carly:

As a science teacher, my hope is to inspire at least a few students to continue in a science-related field – I’m not so naive to think that every one of my students will become a scientist, as the world still needs writers and historians and mathematicians and linguists. However, it is critical that each of my students leaves Craftsbury with the ability to experience the world through a science-lens: observe, make predictions, and question outcomes (including the outcomes and conclusions described by others).

When approached by the Curriculum Design class, I indicated “observation” as a skill that science students need more focused time to hone. With this broad direction, the class designed a series of lessons that led Craftsbury students through a journey of plant identification. The first lesson gave students a reason to need to observe plants, as each small group “adopted” a mystery plant to learn about. In the following two lessons, students gained the skills needed to identify their plant through hands-on experiences with other plants. Students used their skills to identify their mystery plant in the final lesson.

That first interaction with their mystery plant was key to creating a common thread that gave the skill of observation and plant identification meaning. It even inspired one student to (correctly) identify his group’s plant on his own time. I am excited to build upon what the Craftsbury students have learned with the Curriculum Design class this spring, when they will use an app called iNaturalist to map the plants around Craftsbury Schools. I will continue to reinforce and build the observation skills of my students, but am confident that this class is now off to a fantastic start!

Filed Under: Blog Outdoor Education