Outdoor learning

Magellan grant helps students learn outdoors

Each spring, as the weather warms and the grass greens, students from elementary school through college have the same request: Can we have class outside?

Andrew O’Flaherty, who will graduate next week with a degree in environmental science, remembers hearing it in his University of South Carolina classrooms. And he remembers the joy when a professor granted the request.

So as he was choosing a project to tackle as part of his Sustainable Carolina internship, O’Flaherty looked to the great outdoors. He decided to research alternative learning environments and rate the impact that holding class outside a traditional classroom has on students. While some research had been done on college students, O’Flaherty said the majority looked at the impact of outdoor learning on elementary and middle school students.

Using funds from a Magellan grant, he constructed a temporary outdoor classroom -- using a party-style tent, tables, chairs and a whiteboard – in an open space near the Green Quad. He asked professors who teach in the Green Quad Learning Center if they would consider meeting outdoors three times this semester. Three professors and about 60 students representing more than 20 majors participated.

O’Flaherty surveyed the students at the start of the semester in their indoor classroom and at the end of the semester in the outdoor classroom. He asked students if they achieved a higher level of engagement, motivation and emotional well-being when they had class outdoors.

The surveys confirmed what he suspected — students enjoyed their time in the outdoor classroom, with a significant difference in their motivation level and their emotional well-being. He found that about 65 percent described themselves as more engaged in the outdoor classroom, while 80 percent said they were more motivated, and more than 90 percent believed the outdoor class improved their emotional well-being.

Hayley Efland, assistant director for student engagement with Sustainable Carolina, supported O’Flaherty’s proposal to look at outdoor learning.

"We are always looking for ways to get students to think about the world and environment around them. This is a perfect example of what sustainability is,” she says.

Efland, who teaches Green Engagements, a service learning course that provides an overview of common sustainability topics and fundamentals of leadership, in the Green Quad Learning Center, took her students to the outdoor classroom.

“I could tell that they loved it and were so excited to be out there” Efland says. “The classroom was ideal. Because it’s a small class — 11 students — I could tell a difference in their level of engagement when we were outside. There were small tables set up, and they would sit close together and collaborate with each other. They seemed more engaged.”

O’Flaherty used funds from a Magellan grant to purchase materials for the outdoor classroom, and will leave those items on campus to be used for more outdoor learning areas in the future. Efland said she also hopes to look into the possibility for more permanent outdoor classroom structures where University 101 or other classes can meet.

The project also had a personal impact on O’Flaherty, a senior from Frederick, Md., who also has worked in the Sustainable Carolina garden. After graduation, he is considering returning to school to get a land surveying certificate.

“It confirmed for me that I love working outdoors and it’s definitely what I want to do,” he says. “I want to find a job where I’m outside and where I’m bettering the land.”

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