Global climate change and biodiversity loss are major contemporary challenges. To address these challenges, in 2015 the United Nations set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a timeline to achieve them by the year 2030. Goal 15 reads as follows:
“Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.”
The UN’s 2020 report on these goals (page 55) notes that, “The world is falling short on 2020 targets to halt biodiversity loss, despite some progress.”
Discovering life in nearby ecosystems
To familiarize students with the important issues facing humanity, school curricula generally present these subjects at the elementary and high-school levels. From a young age, students are introduced to major global problems like pollution, deforestation and extinction, as well as their impact on the planet’s inhabitants. However, perhaps schools should start by helping young people discover the organisms that inhabit the ecosystems around them.
The outdoor spaces surrounding schools are rich learning environments, as both urban and rural areas are always full of life. Every environment is inhabited by a variety of arthropods, plants, birds, and small mammals.
These environments can help children develop scientific skills like curiosity, observation and experimentation from a very young age (Ayotte-Beaudet, 2020a). For example, to teach students about plants often described as weeds, ask them to draw a chalk circle around any plants pushing through a concrete sidewalk near school. Then have them write in the plant’s name to inform passersby (www.sciencesdehors.com).
Nearby areas off school property can also be used to learn about natural phenomena in situ (Ayotte-Beaudet, 2020b). Students can adopt a tree to make systematic observations about it throughout the school year. This will enable them to determine the adaptation and survival mechanisms used by the tree while also discovering the variety of living organisms that interact with it (e.g., lichen and birds). This type of monitoring helps children develop a shared sense of ownership in the tree under study.
Outdoors, students can also carry out field activities just like scientists do. Citizen science projects give schools a well-defined observation framework to follow and provide knowledge about certain local species (Secours et al., 2020). Some examples of citizen science projects are eBird for birding and NatureWatch for environmental monitoring programs.
Learning to appreciate
The findings of a recent research project suggest that we should reflect on how schools teach biodiversity. The goal of the study in question was to better understand the impact on students of contextualized teaching and learning in a nearby ecosystem (Ayotte-Beaudet et al., in press). The participants, elementary-school students (ages 10-12), took part in a citizen science project designed to help them better understand the effects of global change on urban ecosystems (www.chenilles-espionnes.com). For the instructional phase, the researchers had decided to talk about nature in positive terms only, without ever mentioning environmental problems. During interviews conducted at the end of the project, many of the young people expressed the desire to protect living organisms, even though conservation was never explicitly mentioned. In other words, discovering nature in situ and hearing only positive things about it were enough to heighten young people’s awareness of the life around them.
Where to start?
If you are unaccustomed to holding outdoor classes on biodiversity, the first thing you should probably do is think about your motivation and set a clear learning objective for the first outing. This will help you plan the teaching and learning activities and persuade parents and administration to agree to your approach.
The first few times, it is better to go outside for short periods so you and your students can get used to this new learning environment (www.sciencesdehors.com). Research has also shown that it is important to properly prepare students for these outings, get them engaged in activities, and give them an opportunity to make choices (Ayotte-Beaudet & Potvin, 2020; Ayotte-Beaudet et al., 2019). Most importantly, stimulate the children’s curiosity and trust them. Furthermore, if you are a school principal, trust your teaching staff and give them a chance to experiment!
Elementary school curricula often focus on the gravity of environmental issues, but everyone involved in education should reflect on the best ways of making children aware of biodiversity. At what age can we, in good conscience, burden younger generations with the weight of the problems they will inherit? Before asking them to protect and restore terrestrial ecosystems, I believe we have a duty to teach them how to appreciate the diversity of life in the ecosystems around them.
Photos: Courtesy of Jean-Philipe Ayotte-Beaudet
First published in Education Canada, March 2021
Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P. (2020a). Éveiller aux sciences de la nature à ciel ouvert. Revue préscolaire, 58(4), 36-38. http://aepqkiosk.milibris.com/reader/9d1311ef-ccbb-4df1-af16-ebc7f44582ae?origin=%2Frevue-prescolaire%2Frevue-prescolaire%2Fn584-2020
Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P. (2020b). Regarder dehors pour apprendre et enseigner les sciences. Vivre le primaire, 33(3), 38-40. https://aqep.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/D-Regarder-dehors-pour-apprendre.pdf?fbclid=IwAR248QqdERwurwv755FVeGYMItC61bYxQ9GOjs4hbwxSiUN_-fT45NxlV8k
Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P., Chastenay, P., Beaudry, M.-C., L’Heureux, K., Giamellaro, M., Smith, J., Desjarlais, E., & Paquette, A. (2021, in press). Exploring the impacts of contextualised outdoor science education on learning: The case of primary school students learning about ecosystem relationships. Journal of Biological Education.
Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P., & Potvin, P. (2020). Factors related to students’ perception of learning during outdoor science lessons in schools’ immediate surroundings. International Journal of Environmental and Science Education, 16(2), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.29333/ijese/7815
Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P., Potvin, P. and Riopel, M. (2019). Factors related to middle-school students’ situational interest in science in outdoor lessons in their schools’ immediate surroundings. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 14(1), 13-32. http://www.ijese.net/makale/2100.html
Chenilles-espionnes (https://www.chenilles-espionnes.com) is a Website dedicated to a citizen science project developed by a partnership involving Les Clubs 4-H du Québec, Université du Québec à Montréal and Université de Sherbrooke.
Des sciences dehors (https://www.sciencesdehors.com) is a Quebec-based knowledge-sharing website developed by and for people interested in and passionate about teaching and learning science.
United Nations. (2020). The sustainable development goals report 2020. UN. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2020/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2020.pdf
Secours, É., Paquette, A., Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P., Gignac, A., & Castagneyrol, B. (2020). Chenilles-espionnes, un projet de sciences citoyennes pour sensibiliser les jeunes à la biodiversité. Spectre, 50(1), 27-31. https://fr.calameo.com/aestq/read/00518148392339471f721