Each year, as science fair season rolls around, teachers brace themselves for familiar experiment requests, such as, “Can I make a volcano?” or, “Can I make elephant’s toothpaste explode?”
While we never want to squelch the excitement of our students, we know we have to balance inquiry with learning the scientific method. Our job is to help students understand the importance of repeated trials and generating charts to record and analyze data while fostering a sense of wonder.
Fortunately, science exploration is a year-round opportunity. We encourage families to indulge in the ever-so-popular baking soda and vinegar “volcanoes” and “elephant’s toothpaste” activities at home. In fact, Googling “home science experiments” gives one access to an endless array of science activities using items found in most homes.
And, as temperatures rise and the need to experience something other than a Zoom call draws us outdoors, we are fortunate to have so many resources to help families extend science exploration beyond the school setting.
If you are new to exploring outdoor learning, internet searches can provide the support you need. For example, try researching nature journals with your children. It’s amazing to see how a rubber band, folded paper and a twig can elicit wonder and open the outside world to them.
Sit outside together and watch the natural world unfold before your children’s eyes. Record the elements you hear, see and smell. Recently, after a quick nature “sitting” with my class, one of my students remarked, “I didn’t realize how much I cared about insects!” One small moment changed this student’s perspective instantly.
Some folks recommend taking samples of leaves or bits of nature and gluing them into nature journals, but my recommendation is to follow the “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” philosophy of interacting with nature.
Randall Davey Audubon Center teaches my students that each leaf or rock could be a source of food or shelter for the tiniest organisms. Instead, we sketch the differences between types/functions of leaves or create a diagram of a beetle. Another activity is to print nature bingo cards for your journal. You can find cards with different levels of complexity that can turn your walks into nature scavenger hunts.
Ready to extend your outdoor experience? Document the types of insect life, plant life and birds that might be encountered. How do they interact? What patterns do you observe over time? Asking open-ended questions such as, “Why do you think that happened?” enhances the learning.
Notice the behaviors of fledgling birds as they venture out into their world. Investigate how to identify the 1,100 different species of bees in New Mexico. Watching Olivia Carril’s video about bees in your backyard before setting out to look for our lovely flying neighbors may turn your observations into deeper learning experiences.
The blog Beekeeping Like a Girl has a great article titled, “Is it a Bee, Wasp, or a Fly?” that can be read online prior to exploring the world of hymenoptera — bees, wasps, ants. Visit the bee houses at the Davey Center or the Railyard. Better yet, grab a hammer, a few nails and drill, and make your own after viewing an online tutorial. Kids can learn which animals are endangered in their area and create a fundraiser to help organizations supporting our local wildlife, such as the New Mexico Wildlife Center. They can also write to politicians to ask for help protecting habitats.
You don’t have to be a pro to maximize your outdoor learning experience. There are several plant and bird apps to assist with the identification of local flora and fauna. I use the Audubon Birds and Merlin apps in my class. So take your nature journal and head out into your backyard, a park or on a hiking trail. You’ll be amazed how taking that first step will possibly lead to a lifetime of learning.