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An outside chance for schoolkids

Environmental courses improve science scores and build confidence, a study finds.

June 07, 2005|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Before a six-hour trek in the Angeles National Forest, science teacher Barbara Hill gathers her sixth-graders for a biology lesson. The subject: living (biotic) things in nature versus nonliving (abiotic) things.

"Are we biotic or abiotic?" asks 12-year-old Robert Perez, one of about two dozen students from La Puente and Baldwin Park at the weeklong outdoor science program.

"What do you think?" Hill asks.

"Biotic," the boy answers, "because we are alive."

A study released Monday of the educational effect of the outdoors shows that students not only improved their science grades but also gained confidence from their nature-as-classroom experience.

The study focused on 255 fifth- and sixth-graders who attended weeklong environmental science courses in Los Angeles, San Diego and Fresno schools. Most of the students -- 81% to 100% -- were from low-income families, and most were Latino. The study found that students had more self-esteem, an improved understanding of science and a greater concern for the environment compared with students who did not participate. Children who attended the courses increased their science scores by 27%, the study shows. Students also were more cooperative and more engaged in the classroom, and were more open to conflict resolution.

On the trail in the mountains, 12-year-old Eddie Gonzalez of Baldwin Park says he absorbs more in the outdoors, where "it's better because you get to see it.... Back at school we can only learn this from books, and that is not much fun."

The study is the latest to underscore the benefits of outdoor science courses. The author, the nonprofit American Institutes for Research for the California Department of Education, says the report is unique because it compares the knowledge and attitudes of children who attended such courses with those who did not.

The Sierra Club sponsored the bill that led to the study to spur state lawmakers to set aside funds for the science courses for poor and at-risk kids. Parents typically fund such programs.

Nature courses have been around for decades, but the Sierra Club says only about one in seven California schools offers them because they cost roughly $200 per pupil per week.

Esther Snell, a fifth-grade teacher at Lassalette Elementary School in La Puente, knows families who were recently homeless and can't afford the classes. She seeks grants and raises funds to help families pay the fee.

"I try to get my kids [enrolled] who have difficulty sitting still because out here they soak it in," she says.

Hill, a teacher with the L.A. County Office of Education, taught students about living and nonliving components of the environment on a sunny morning at Colby Ranch, a secluded campus nestled beneath cottonwood, cedar and oak trees 15 miles north of Pasadena. The property holds about 130 students who walk the hills learning about erosion, wildlife habitat and pollution.

Lessons continue past dinner, when students step out under the stars to discuss astronomy and nocturnal animals.

"It's an experiential approach. It's interest-building," says Darleen Stoner, environmental education professor at Cal State San Bernardino.

Richard Louv, a San Diego journalist and author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," worries that children too often prefer the virtual world of computers to a trout-filled stream or wooded mountain trail.

Louv, who grew up chasing frogs in creeks near his home in Missouri, says many people associate the outdoors with West Nile virus, infections, animal attacks and kidnappings.

"We are saying the boogeyman lives in the woods," he says.

Still, Louv hopes the new study will prompt changes in public schools. "We need to get away from nature being extracurricular," he says. "We should move toward making it essential."

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