Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Outdoor Environmental Education

I love experiential learning. Being able to apply the material I learn in the classroom to real-life situations makes the information come alive in a way that’s not possible in the classroom.

At Macalester, our urban location provides many opportunities to form these connections in the larger community. Having the Twin Cities at my fingertips has enhanced my time at Macalester in ways I did not expect. Volunteering, working, and interning at a variety of locations have helped me see the importance of my studies from a new perspective. Professors at Mac realize the importance of experiential learning as well and many incorporate it into their courses.

This semester I am taking Outdoor Environmental Education, cross-listed and co-taught by the Environmental Studies and Educational Studies departments. The course—which provides an introduction to outdoor environmental education at the elementary-school level—partners with teachers and students at surrounding schools, whom we meet with three times over the semester. Before each teaching session we construct lesson plans using Minnesota Department of Natural Resources materials and other resources. Not only does the course allow for meaningful interactions between Macalester students and grade-schoolers, it also utilizes Macalester’s field station, the Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area.

The course has been a wonderful experience so far, with many unexpected challenges and rewards. During our first trip to the Ordway for teaching, my group of three Macalester students was paired with a kindergarten class. Having 25 bundled up 5-year-olds come off a bus and look to you for direction is cute and overwhelming. Though we had carefully constructed our lesson plan—considering academic goals, age appropriateness, transitions, vocabulary, and many other aspects—oversights occurred.

For example, we forgot how difficult it is for little legs to walk down a hill or for kindergartners to form a circle. Larger issues also arose, such as how best to work with English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities. These are issues I’ve discussed and debated many times in class but never experienced in a situation where I was in charge. Confronting and working through issues like these was a powerful learning experience. My peers and I had to be adaptable and think on our feet to ensure that all our students were engaged and learning.

I am thankful Macalester professors allow these opportunities to exist. The real-life experiences at Ordway have been rewarding and thought provoking. The course has grounded my time in the classroom to actual interactions with students and curriculum. Over the semester, my peers and I have been able to improve upon our mistakes and strengthen our lesson plans to improve our students’ experiences.

As well as assisting with my own growth as a student and future educator, Outdoor Environmental Education has been a wonderful way to form community relationships, something Macalester prides itself on. Overall, Outdoor Environmental Education has been a terrific experiential learning opportunity—as well as a great way to get outside and meet some awesome five year-olds!
—Alyssa Markle ’13