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Get Out!

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
March 04, 2009 | Observations by Larry

Top image: Seven of the original 11 FOSS Outdoors Summiteers (from left): Joanna Snyder, Kim Stokely, Kristin Metz, Erica Beck Spencer, Terry Shaw, Arthur Camins, and Peter Dow. Missing: John Falk, Gary Heath, Linda De Lucchi, and Larry Malone.

One year ago the FOSS codirectors called a small group of colleagues to a meeting in Berkeley. Their arrival coincided with the 31st annual BAEER Fair. The acronym BAEER stands for the Bay Area Environmental Education Resource Fair, a small, one-day convergence of environmental education resource providers and San Francisco Bay Area educators. It is a day to share resources, renew and expand professional networks, and celebrate the wealth of natural wonders in northern California. Behind the festive façade of the fair, however, there was serious business at hand. Our friends were there to talk about FOSS beyond the classroom. We needed to redefine the FOSS classroom, rethink the role of FOSS teachers, and reexamine the mission of the FOSS Program. A number of timely factors had conspired to motivate a new FOSS initiative— FOSS Outdoors.

Most important among those motivating factors was the mounting scientific evidence that we, species Homo sapiens, have drifted into a contrary relationship with our planet. We have pushed our natural support systems to the limit—global water supply, global food resources on land and sea, global energy supply, global habitat destruction, global decline of species diversity, global climate alteration...get the idea?

A second factor was the progressive withdrawal (or exclusion) of our children from healthy relationships with natural systems. Richard Louv put a fine point on the issue with his instructive book, Last Child in the Woods. He cites the decline of informal, self-directed play in the outdoors, such as fantasy games, collecting, constructing, fishing, cookouts, dam-building, and so on. Louv suggests a number of reasons for the retreat from the woods, including access, fear, and restrictions imposed by well-intentioned adults who view such "destructive" activities as environmentally inappropriate. Where, he asks, will the stewards of our natural systems come from if our children never experience those natural systems we will rely on them to defend? Can those rascals damming a creek and collecting wildflowers rise to the occasion? There is evidence that the answer is yes.

Part of our responsibility here at FOSS is to do what we can to reintroduce our children to the outdoors. This will happen in a graduated continuum of levels of engagement. Easiest to enact is simply following a logical extension of the classroom activity out the door and into the schoolyard. Studying rocks in class? Go look for rocks outdoors. Investigating germination in the classroom? Go out and search for emergent plants in the schoolyard. Outdoor activities that confirm, extend, and apply concepts developed in the classroom enrich the understanding of science and redefine the context in which science is meaningful.

At the second level of engagement, a FOSS classroom investigation creates a rationale for going outside, and then the inquiry stays outside. For example, when students studying the Water Module go out to observe evaporation of water on the sidewalk, the classroom experience might continue as designed in the Teacher Guide, but a separate sequence of activities might split off and pursue more information about water in the environment. Where can we find standing water? Where does water flow on the schoolyard? Where is water introduced into the schoolyard naturally and intentionally? A number of parallel environmental education modules will provide more focused experiences for students and teachers that are related to, but are separate from, FOSS modules.

The third level of engagement involves new outdoor curriculum for long-term projects that use the schoolyard and beyond as learning resources. These modules will guide inquiry into phenology studies, weather and climate monitoring, diversity inventory, habitat survey and enhancement, and so on. These modules will be for schools that adopt the environmental and ecological sciences into their educational mission.

And one more factor motivating the FOSS Outdoors initiative is the resurrection of a valuable outdoor education resource that has lain dormant for the last couple of decades, that is, OBIS. Remember OBIS? It is the Outdoor Biology Instructional Strategies program, developed at the Lawrence Hall of Science in the early 1970s...during the first wave of environmental education awareness. We will use the 100 OBIS activities as a resource pool for developing the learning experiences for FOSS Outdoors. You can review the OBIS activities, and leave a comment about an activity for Joanna and Erica, on the new OBIS website, That's what we're thinking. We will be encouraging teachers to break down the arbitrary limitation imposed by the classroom door and reach for the environment. When you hear the new FOSS rallying cry, GET OUT!, don't be offended or feel rejected. It is an invitation to embrace a larger, more inclusive sense of learning place. We look forward to seeing you out there.

For more on FOSS Outdoors, see Something Exciting Is Happening in Boston: Science in the Schoolyard, FOSS Newsletter, no. 32, pp 4-8.)