Why bringing science and nature into the classroom is vital

Three children handling rocks

OPAL Community Scientist Iwan Edwards (based at North Wales Wildlife Trust) explains why science and nature are the perfect ingredients for teachers, educators and parents to awaken children’s curiosity about the world around them.

In my time as an OPAL community scientist I have worked with hundreds of schools, teachers and thousands of children. Each time I walk into a classroom, the mention of the word ‘science’ never fails to get a reaction. That reaction is one of excitement, intrigue or even wonder.

I never have the time to find out why science generates this buzz of excitement - I have a job to be getting on with and a class full of kids to get outdoors collecting data about worms, soil, trees, hedgerows or whatever lies beyond their classroom walls and windows – out there – in nature. Within minutes the kids are absorbed: looking, listening, observing, recording. It’s always clear to me science and nature offer so much scope to harness children’s curiosity and create opportunities for them to grow and develop.

Positive mindset

Iwan with pupilsWhen you work in nature conservation, it’s easy to feel a little gloomy. These days when I step into a school, I resist the war cry of conservation and refrain from reeling off the catastrophic numbers of declining species and biodiversity. What does biodiversity mean to children or even adults anyway? My audience, looking out of the classroom window, are starting from ground zero. They have no idea that those fields used to be hay meadows with 60% more bees and butterflies, so let’s start with the positive.

And science is just as important. Science helps those children learn about the natural world, but also builds a wide range of skills. It involves communicating and listening to others; it develops patience, too – a lot of the time in science things don't happen overnight. Add to the mix skills such as perseverance or problem-solving and you begin to see why science is fundamental to education.

By giving pupils the opportunity to observe nature and collect real data to share with scientists, citizen science projects provide the opportunity to both engage kids with nature and to bring living breathing science into the classroom. Children can play a part in the story of real science, counting real clouds, real bugs or real cars, not just for the sake of it, but to make a contribution to scientific knowledge. For many pupils this may be their first close encounter with nature – hopefully just the beginning of a life-long relationship.

Something for everyone

Citizen science has boomed in the last few decades, and there’s something for everyone. One of my favourite projects is Professor Plant’s school investigation into climate change, run by the National Museum of Wales, which encourages participants to keep weather records and measure spring bulbs as they grow.

Every January, citizen scientists across the UK get out their binoculars to count birds in their gardens for the Royal Society for the Protection of Bird’s (RSPB) Big Garden Birdwatch. Other projects have a more local focus, such as the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) new wood pasture and parkland survey in Suffolk.

The ‘citizen’ in citizen science means that anyone can get involved. Citizen science surveys range from a very simple yes or no survey question like you find in OPAL’S New Zealand flatworm survey, all the way through to professional surveyor level standard requiring real expertise, often accompanied by volunteer training pathways such as those offered by the British Trust for Ornithology or the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The range of OPAL surveys are suitable for anyone and everyone and are perfect for bringing science and nature into the classroom.

Making the most of citizen science

There are also training opportunities in many parts of the UK enabling teachers and educators to improve their skills and knowledge concerning citizen science, enabling you to utilise OPAL and other citizen science surveys to enhance your students’ experiences in the classroom and beyond. These range from half day CPD courses through to Open College Network (OCN) short courses or evening classes such as the one I will be delivering at Glyndwr University, starting next month.

The more educators seize the opportunity to do citizen science with their students, the more we can inspire future generations with the wonders of both nature and science.

Find out more

Don’t miss Iwan’s course: OPAL: An educators guide to exploring nature, taking place at Glyndwr University’s Northop Campus (near Wrexham) from 17 May – 19 July 2017, with classes every Wednesday 4-7pm. Find out more

This is a paid course. OPAL is developing new ways of working to put it on the path towards sustainability - to help shape OPAL's future, tell us a little more about you.