Get Outside for Creative Science

Recently, I’ve been spending time with a four-year-old scientist. Her imagination and curiosity, combined with her mom’s dedication to presenting her with accurate information, has resulted in all manner of interesting conversations about insect body parts, endo- and exoskeletons, how my petunias might be feeling about being planted, and which fish could enjoy playing together. There is nothing she enjoys more than walking through the local woods exploring all there is to see. It is a delight. I thought about her when reading a recent article in the International Journal of Science Education about the role outdoor education can play in keeping young girls engaged in science.

There is a long and sad history of research suggesting that as girls go through school, they become less confident in their science abilities and less likely to envision women as scientists. A few years ago I wrote about research in which when asked to “act like scientists” girls were less interested and successful than when it was suggested they “do science.” In a recent study, Kathryn Stevenson and colleagues compared science grades, knowledge, and self-efficacy (confidence) in fifth grade students who studied traditional science curriculum versus those who had the chance for multiple experiences in outdoor education. Outdoor education offered opportunities for small group collaborative work, outdoor observation, and data gathering.

Girls in the groups that had outdoor education increased in science knowledge and grades, while grades fell for the control group. Interestingly, both boys and girls in the outdoor education group had lower self-efficacy regarding science, which surprised and puzzled the researchers. I wonder if that drop might be a more realistic self-assessment, upon realizing analyzing data for real science is more complicated than taking multiple choice tests. Only more research will tell.

But in the meantime, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, many school years are approaching their close and warm weather is (finally!) upon us. As we begin to emerge from our COVID cocoons, spending more time outdoors seems like a good step forward. Whether as families, friends, schools, or camps, encouraging young people to explore the natural world—formally or informally—seems like a wise way to encourage future creative scientists, particularly young girls. I suspect it will be good for adult mental health as well. Find some fields, or woods, or shoreline. Allow yourself to just stop and look. Breath deeply and look around. Try to discover who lives there, what they eat, and where they go. What makes you curious? Share it with your young friends and family. Personally, I’m looking forward to taking my own advice.

Stevenson, K. T., Szczytko, R. E., Carrier S. J., & Peterson, M. N. (2021) How outdoor science education can help girls stay engaged with science, International Journal of Science Education, DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2021.1900948

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