Helping online students connect to nature | eePRO @ NAAEE

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Helping online students connect to nature

Hi everyone! I am looking for any suggestions to help high school students build a connection to nature when they are taking online courses. I have had students go out and explore their area and reflect, but I feel that a large portion still aren't fully developing a real connection to nature. Thanks for any ideas!

hi, I have similar concerns. I teach many online courses and constantly aim to help students develop that connection. I have found that the more frequently they are required to venture out, the better. I used to teach a class where they went out just a few times, now I have them keep a nature journal as documentation of their visits outside, and I require a minimum of 2, half-hour trips to "nature" each week for one of my classes. In the warmer months, that will change to 3. I have them document specific things, such as weather, time of day, etc. to hold them accountable. Sometimes I provide prompts, and other times I just ask them to reflect, notice, etc.
This is a very valuable and meaningful part of the classes, for some students. Others, I can't really tell. I remind myself that it may not be obvious to me how it's affecting them. So your concern about whether it's a "real" connection may be impossible for you to know--maybe it seems like they are not being impacted, but they could be. Perhaps they aren't really sure how to articulate it. Perhaps they need more structure in defining what a "real" connection would look like/feel like to them... or, the benefits of frequent visits to nature may not show up for them until later in life. In any event, what you're doing matters!

I like your ideas and I agree, whatever happens is valuable and does matter. I have often wondered if it is more valuable for students to report out and reflect through writing (to make them accountable and for my understanding of what they are getting) but more and more I feel like they are so far removed they just need to be outside to experience it in the first place, before reflecting. I teach EE at the primary and high school levels (not online) and we make regular visits to the woods for nature journaling, students have their special spots where they sit and reflect each month. Lately I have been making more time for unstructured play and exploration for them to make their own connections in their own way. I think it depends on where your students are at. I have also been rewarding them with unstructured time in the woods instead of an extra recess or party in the classroom, which they really enjoy. When your students are online for their studies maybe just having regular breaks where you go to the woods if you are able, students can rest, reflect and connect in their own way. Do you have room in the schedule to do this? Do you want them to connect with nature through apps like iNaturalist, eBird, or Nature's Notebook or have a break from the online world? Great question, I homeschooled a student with an online program and I remember thinking- we need an outdoor project to balance this!!!

Alanna, I love the idea of them using apps to help connect! I haven't used any of the ones you listed, so I will have to check them out. They have assignments that give them a 'break' from the online world, thankfully! I also like the idea of unstructured time outside. How do you approach this with students? Do you just tell them to spend time outside and reflect after?

Hi Danielle,
In Maine we also have a number of Citizen Science platforms for students to collect data in the field, and then upload written evidence and photo documentation to the internet. I have used Project Budburst (, national) with younger students, and the Maine-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute's Vital Signs program ( is amazing for Middle school, and for High School- I hope that there are other similar platforms across the country but I don't know. I like these more than the regular apps because they are investigations or missions that students are actively contributing to a pool of data over time, and connecting with other students, other citizen scientists, and professional scientists.
The unstructured time outside has been touch and go. I read Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscom ( and got all riled up about kids just needing unstructured time outside. I started meeting a teacher who was excited about it during recess so we could take her students to the woods, but what Hanscom stresses is time- kids need an hour or more just to get into an unstructured mindset, so there really needs to be a major paradigm shift to embrace that freedom, and once we get into high school its almost pushed right out of us- how to imagine, how to create, how to be bored, how to sit still. When we first took students to the woods for recess (5th grade) we realized we need to set a few parameters (Hanscom is not really into rules) as we watched kids grab sticks bigger than they were and sprint through the woods with them. I mean, awesome, but terrifying as the person "responsible". I have also given them 10-15 minutes after nature journal writing (4th grade) to explore within some set boundaries. Again, time and freedom. Hanscom's book focuses on younger kids and development but I think it is valuable to check out!

Hello Danielle, This is an issue for any student who takes online courses. As a professor at Arizona State I am now being asked to create online courses to compliment my face to face classes. One thing i have incorporated is field assignments that require students to get outside and complete an activity of some kind. I have found this to be very successful.

Technology...what is the right balance, that is the question. Each of us has limits we set based upon our beliefs and our experience. It is a function of how we view any newer method or technique. It is not easy to assess what is best for learners especially in these times when technology can be an invaluable tool or it can become a "quick and dirty" way of getting things accomplished.

A parallel here...when I was a young professional, the rage was instructional television and the promise it could provide only the best teachers anywhere. Then there was some discussion about interaction and how effective one might provide feedback and understand non-verbal behavior...and how would teachers be able to ascertain what a group of 500 people watching "the tube" would know and be able to apply. For some that was never a problem. This is especially so if a person is a lecturer or a deliverer of material...then I suppose it does not matter what they know - you test it and that is your assessment that was given was learned. (Though we know better) That was and still is one way an instructor can operate...the "sage on the stage."

On the other hand, if one subscribes to being a "guide on the side," observing, asking questions, probing what students are learning in their experiences...then the question about instructional television was, how can I do this to a large group or even small group? To complicate matters we heard, especially in higher education, instructional television/ITV or any of the other names may be used to replace instructors. The word supplant was used. One qualified teacher teaching hundreds and not needing instructors for 30 students. All that was needed at multiple sites, instead of a qualified instructor, was an aid. What a savings. And...the mention was made, instructional television would cost less and would help to reduce the expenditures of educating. Many ears perked up when they heard further fanned the fears of teachers who thought, I may lose my job. Then instructional television faded but instead found its niche. A reason was instructors found ways of using its power as a value added, not to supplant.

So it is now with technology, not that instructional television was not technology. The same questions have arisen with computers, laptops, I-pads, phones, etc. With this form there is a possibility for interaction - not perfect, but at least a feedback loop. One of the concerns with instructional television was the lack of feedback. So we have a more perfect tool. And like instructional television the same concerns have arisen once again. Of course we hear the clammer, people are already watching too much of this, it is not healthy and so on.

A short parable: I taught an Intro to Environmental Education class using on-line resources to engage and enhance student instruction. The University of Wisconsin Stephens Point in conjunction with NAAEE had developed a course akin to what I was teaching. So I decided to use this on-line format to take a spin with it for my students. It provided a format and organization that I liked on first blush. I used it for a couple of semesters in addition to some time in the field with my students at beautiful Land Between the Lakes, a US Forest Service facility. So I saw it as a hybrid that allowed me to concentrate on field experiences, a good thing. Yet I never really felt comfortable with what and how I used this resource. It wasn't the material. It was me asking the question, is this value added, and does this provide a gain for students and for the instructor? There were more questions in my mind about this hybrid class and each semester I tried using technology to try to weave a better instructional fabric. It was as one of my colleagues used to say, teaching and learning is a process of becoming. But that is never a bad thing. Teaching should change and so should the teacher.

As an instructor for KY EE Certification, we use technology for submission of article reviews with instructors providing feedback. I have tried to be a guide on the side with this format, asking questions and sharing some things, but it does not seem responsive enough. As we say about teaching and learning, there are times that arise that are best dealt with then, not delayed. That spontaneity seems lost to me in this process. Though I have colleagues who use various on-line formats to interact on a "live" basis....I have not been sold on that because of the immediacy issues I had. My response to them has always been...if you have learned to ask questions based on verbal and non-verbal cues, how does one perceive the non-verbal with learners merely from their written words? I have heard some teachers lament, students do not write any more. Does this format help or harm obtaining good writing and expression of thought? I thought, is this process more like the Twitter world? Does it mean students speak on-line through blurbs instead of more eloquently? I have also found these blurbs have an edginess to them, not how I choose to interact with people. The more I think about this form of interacting and providing instruction, the more questions I have.

Going back to my original sentence...I have not found a comfort zone for using technology that is better than first-hand experience, especially in EE. If you are an inquiry and experientially based instructor, technology seems burdensome and in many ways a barrier for the kind of interaction that I feel is important. I know I am a technological immigrant and our newer students are natives in technology. I believe this is a distinct difference in my mindset and our younger students. Am I the old fossil or am I sharing some concerns about how affect is being dismissed today through technology? I mention that because email and interaction on-line seems to be cold, terse...and often not an indication of what people are feeling when they are also thinking or learning.

Interestingly, Benjamin Bloom identified three Domains, the Cognitive, the Affective and Psycho-Motor. He intended those to interact with one another...but you know the human spirit, how can we "specialize?" Let us concentrate on one, the cognitive and the rest will follow. Reminds me of when a horse walks, we are sure the tail will follow. But with Blooms domains, it just has not happened in that way. If we do concentrate on the cognitive, the others have not followed. So it seems with technology today. If knowledge is what technology does best, does the affect about that knowledge follow? If we ask students to follow up individually with psycho-motor or real experiences in nature, does this happen? And, does experiential after knowledge alone as valuable as when we have the experiential and then go to the abstract, the knowledge?

There are however many tools that can be used, APPs that can be helpful in the field. This supposes where you will be with your learners has internet access. That is unless the software is already resident and does not need an internet connection. Yet these kinds of devices and tools should be used, it is a matter of each of us finding our comfort zone with them.

There is another thing that concerns me about technology. Some institutions now DEMAND that courses be on-line because it "saves money," and this sounds vaguely familiar. It reminds me of instructional television - we can supplant instructors with technology. It sends a cold shiver down my spine to think this required teaching mode is "required." The same mantra used with instructional television, but now it seems to be a necessity that administrations consider as a means of survival. How will that play out in providing experiences in nature, connecting to nature?

By analogy I pose the question, can you imagine teaching carpentry via technology? Certainly there are concepts that can be learned via words and pictures, but can one really learn carpentry via technology? So it is with EE. Rachel Carson suggests: "Senses other than sight can prove avenues of delight and discovery, storing up for us memories and impressions. (The Sense of Wonder - Rachel Carson, pg, 83) How can we provide for this if technology becomes a requirement as a means of delivery for students and instructors? Can/will technology find its niche, just as instructional television has over time?

I/We do not know. It does mean we should continue to try to find ways to use as many tools as possible to help students make connections to the natural and human built world. I say...we must find a way to connect affect to the cognitive domain using technology. All EE people understand the concept that "all things connect." So it is with technology...we must find that connection that works best for each of us, as questions and become introspective about outcomes of using technology in EE, and find the niche that works best for our students.

I teach high school students and our science teachers also noticed the need for our students to be outdoors more. We chose to address the problem in our science club by focusing on outdoor events for the entire year. We found a STEM camp that we took students to and almost all of them had never been camping. We went hiking and kayaking. Our campus is a Title I campus with all students on free lunch. It has been great to see students connect with the rich environment of the Arizona canvas from the mountains to the desert to the Colorado River which runs through our community. We found that teachers could impart a lot of knowledge but the students that connected physically with the outdoor space around them had a deeper connection for how their Arizona environment impacted their lives personally. It was also a great opportunity to connect with the students outside of the classroom and build relationships with the students. I would like to incorporate this into my biology class but field trips can hinder the process. Perhaps I should consider some virtual field trips?

Hello Patty. Several years ago I took an online southwest desert class at my local community college. One of the assignments was to spend two hours in the desert, journal my time, and write a poem. I still remember that course and how I purposefully observed and connected to the environment I was in. The assignment was out of the norm for my usual courses and it took me out of my comfort zone but it was one of the most memorable assignments I can remember. I am now a high school teacher and occasionally assign similar assignments because I want all learning types to have an opportunity to communicate their finding in a different way. Some students fight these assignments but I always hope some will connect with learning style like I did.

Dr. Molina, I like the idea of doing field work. I will be looking how to incorporate field work into my online biology classes as well to start developing their connection with nature before and while learning about the environment.

Here is my concern-
If we are connecting with students via their nature experiences online, at what point does the "in the field" teachable moment become inaccessible? If an instructor is not there at the moment of the significant learning, how are they to utilize that teachable moment?