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Learning with Lizards

The weather in North Carolina is pretty warm year-round, which makes for an excellent climate for lizards. When Michelle McElhiney’s fifth-grade students started noticing the lizards running around on the paved pathways in their outdoor classroom, where younger children sometimes ran without paying attention, the fifth-graders became concerned for the lizards’ safety.mcelhiney-photo-for-savescience-blog

Some teachers would see this concern as a potential distraction, but Ms. McElhiney took the students’ “natural” interest and had the students connect their observations to a recent animal habitat lesson.

The children eagerly contributed what they’d learned, connecting it with what they’d observed.  The lizards had food and water already, but would need more shelter.

Soon the class began brainstorming ways to build a “Lizard Hotel,” or some sort of space that would protect the creatures from running feet or curious Pre-K student hands. Protecting the lizards became a priority, and to do so, her students needed to work together as a team to find the solution to a real-world problem. For these students, what might have felt like just a fun activity was actually a hands-on lesson in Life and Environmental Science. For Ms. McElhiney, getting her students outdoors goes hand-in-hand with teaching Science, and that’s one reason why she’s excited to join the Out Teach campaign to #SaveScience.

Interestingly enough, Ms. McElhiney started out as a middle school teacher, but decided to switch to elementary when she saw how unprepared her middle school students were when it came to Science topics. She is now dedicated to teaching Science to younger students and has found great success using the outdoors as a tool to access real-world scientific content.

Many Science units in elementary school, such as the fifth grade Ecosystems unit, simply make more sense when taught outside because they involve the natural world. Ms. McElhiney finds that the outdoors helps better demonstrate some of the abstract concepts in state standards. For example, ESL students may struggle with certain vocabulary, but being able to teach them – outside – increases comprehension, and the hands-on setting helps it sink in. Not only is Science fun and exciting for curious kids, it is also a natural way to work as a group and to practice Social & Emotional Learning (SEL) and 21st Century Skills.

Though Ms. McElhiney had often heard students complaining that going outside is “too hot” or there are “too many bugs,” the activity was deeply engaging for her whole class, and they quickly forgot their old concerns.   For kids who struggled to pay attention indoors, or those who were always begging for screentime, going outdoors could have been a challenge. However, Ms. McElhiney  has found that once her students step into the outdoor classroom, they transform. Becoming more “in-tune” with themselves and with nature sparked a shift that immediately boosted the students’ academic engagement and behavior.

The whole staff here at Out Teach would like to thank Ms. McElhiney for her work to #SaveScience, and make sure students have access to the 21st Century and STEM skills they’ll need to succeed in school and in life!


Carolinas — Learning about hurricanes

Our instructional team in the Carolinas wanted to share the following  ideas on hurricane-based lessons with schools in south-eastern states.

We are at the peak of hurricane season. Students have natural curiosity surrounding this weather phenomena and hurricanes can be integrated into your classroom instruction to engage students. Here are some ideas:

  • If we have direct weather impacts take your students into the outdoor classroom to make observations.
  • What types of clouds do we have, what direction are they moving?
  • What direction is the wind blowing?
  • Measure any rainfall.
  • Incorporate weather instruments.

If we do not have direct weather impacts, live stream from an area having impacts and discuss.

  • Track hurricanes using coordinate grids or lines of latitude and longitude.
  • Discuss state names and locations on a map.
  • Graph information for each hurricane this season (total rainfall, category, wind speed)
  • Discuss what causes a hurricane and why hurricanes peak around this time of year (warm water, Gulf Stream, etc).
  • Integrate non-fiction text and research projects.
  • Allow students to think of service projects you can integrate into your classroom (creating cards for first responders or linemen, bringing in change collections for various relief organizations, etc).

National Geographic Explorer Magazine

national-geographic-explorer-magazine-coverTo help teachers across the country #SaveScience by giving their students more outdoor experiential science instruction, we collaborated with National Geographic Explorer magazine on plans for the root viewers we build in our Outdoor Learning Labs, as well as one of our Parts of a Plant lessons. Check out our section of the teacher’s guide!   We are so pleased to be working with them to address this important issue.

To get more fantastic nonfiction articles and classroom resources in 7 issues per year, learn more and subscribe now. 



Seasonal Outdoor Learning Lab Maintenance

Fall (September – November)

  • Pull weeds: make sure the students pull from the base of the plant and get all of
    the roots.
  • Turn soil in vegetable beds: get ready for cool season planting.
  • Fertilize: best to use compost, but also okay to use organic fertilizer.
  • Mulch: place ~3 inches of mulch around perennials and mature vegetable plants,
    keeping mulch off stems. This keeps plants cool in hot weather, warm in cold
    weather, locks in moisture and decays over time adding important nutrients and
    improving the texture of the soil.
  • Turn compost: have 2 or 3 students working on one bin at a time.
  • Water: vegetables 2-3 times a week, perennials once a week.
  • Dead head: pinch (or cut) off dead flowers from perennial plants.
  • Check for volunteer transplants: dig up plants that have self-seeded and save to
    be given away or used for plant sales.
  • Harvest seeds: make seed balls, sell, give as gifts.
  • Bump up: take transplants and repot if they need a bigger pot.
  • Thin: make sure plants are properly spaced according to seed packet instructions
    (look up online if seed packets are no longer available).

Winter (November – February)

  • Pull weeds: make sure the students pull from the base of the plant and get all ofthe roots.
  • Water: vegetables 2-3 times a week, perennials once a week.
  • Mulch: place ~3 inches of mulch around perennials and mature vegetable plants,
    keeping mulch off stems. This keeps plants cool in hot weather, warm in cold
    weather, and locks in moisture.
  • Turn compost: have 2 or 3 students working on one bin at a time.
  • Prune: after Valentine’s Day, cut back stems to the first green leaves for
    perennials. Annuals that have completed their life cycle (most vegetables) can
    be pulled, cut into smaller pieces, and added to the compost.

Spring (February – May)

  • Pull weeds: make sure the students pull from the base of the plant and get all of
    the roots.
  • Turn soil in vegetable beds: get ready for cool season plants like onions and
    potatoes in February and warm season plants in March.
  • Fertilize: best to use compost, but also okay to use organic fertilizer.
    Mulch: place ~3 inches of mulch around perennials and mature vegetable plants,
    keeping mulch off stems. This keeps plants cool in hot weather, warm in cold
    weather locks in moisture and decays over time adding important nutrients and
    improving the texture of the soil.
  • Turn compost: have 2 or 3 students working on one bin at a time.
  • Water: vegetables 2-3 times a week, perennials once a week.
  • Dead head: pinch (or cut) off dead flowers.
  • Check for volunteer transplants: dig up plants that have self-seeded and save to
    be given away or used for plant sales.
  • Bump up: take transplants and repot if they need a bigger pot.
  • Thin: make sure plants are properly spaced according to seed packet instructions
    (look up online if seed packets are no longer available).

Out Teach Announced as New 100Kin10 Partner Ahead of Network Exceeding Goal of Training 100,000 New STEM Teachers by 2021



Out Teach Announced as New 100Kin10 Partner
Ahead of Network Exceeding Goal of 
Training New STEM Teachers by 2021

Out Teach Among More Than 40 New Partners That Will Become Part Of The STEM Education Network

100Kin10, a national organization dedicated to solving the STEM teacher shortage by 2021, announced today that Out Teach joins 40 other new programmatic partners in its ranks this year. In addition to Out Teach, new partners include Chicago Public Schools, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Council of Chief State School Officers, among others.

This is the seventh and final cohort of partners for 100Kin10 during its first 10 years. The organization launched in 2011 as an answer to President Obama’s call during his 2011 State of the Union address to train 100,000 new STEM teachers in a decade. 100Kin10 is on track to exceed their goal of training 100,000 teachers by 2021, with more than 68,000 teachers currently trained.

Jeanne McCarty, CEO of Out Teach, said “Everyone here at Out Teach is proud to join 100kin10 as they work to support high-quality Science and STEM instruction. We joined because hands-on learning outdoors sparks student curiosity, and gets kids excited about learning and mastering science content and practices early on. So, to help teachers lead effective outdoor Science and STEM lessons, we provide teachers in low-income schools with on-the-job coaching, showing them how to unlock student performance with ‘ah ha!’ learning moments every day. We also show teachers how effective it is to embed science concepts and practices into Math and Literacy, making learning meaningful and authentic for all students.”

McCarty continued, “To help 100kin10 reach its ambitious goals, by 2021, Out Teach will prepare 1,000 PK-5 teachers to use the outdoors for high-quality Science and STEM learning, reaching approximately 25,000 students. We focus on the early years (preK-5), because that’s when students get the least Science instruction, at the time they need it most. On average, elementary students only receive 15 minutes of Science instruction per day, and very little of that is active and experiential. Research shows that career paths are often set by 6th grade, so it’s critical that all students have opportunities to practice science and see themselves as scientists or engineers early on. This is particularly important for girls, students of color, and children from low-income families who may have less opportunities outside of school to explore, practice, and imagine a future in STEM.”

The final round of growth specifically focuses on 100Kin10’s latest project: tackling what they’ve identified as the root causes of the STEM teacher shortage. If solved, these ‘catalysts’ – which include bonuses, scholarships or loan forgiveness for STEM teachers, increasing professional development and state tracking of STEM teacher supply and demand – would more sustainably end the teacher shortage.

“This final group, including Out Teach is a welcome addition as we enter our final push in achieving our goal and look toward the future in solving systemic issues around the teacher shortage in America,” said Talia Milgrom-Elcott, 100Kin10’s executive director. “Each organization is doing incredible, inspiring work to build the movement for better, bolder and more accessible STEM education. We’re thrilled to have them as our newest partners in collaboration, learning and continuous improvement to creatively solve the STEM teacher crisis.”

Existing partners and an expert panel vetted and selected the 41 new partners, who will join a network of more than 280 current partners that includes the nation’s top academic institutions, nonprofits, foundations, companies and government agencies. All partners register their commitments to ending the STEM teacher shortage through 100Kin10 and support one another to achieve those commitments by exchanging expertise, learning and resources.
In addition to the 41 accepted programmatic organizations, 100Kin10 is inviting 16 other organizations to join as “allies” of the network. This is a new opportunity to connect with and share in the learning life of the network to reach its goal.


100Kin10 is network of best-in-class organizations collectively responding to the moonshot call to put 100,000 new, excellent STEM teachers in America’s classrooms by 2021. Though their pioneering networked impact approach, 100Kin10 encourages multi-sector collaboration and provides the vision and resources to help nonprofits, foundations, academic institutions and businesses meet their ambitious commitments to educate the next generation of innovators and problem solvers. More information is available at www.100kin10.org.

Calling all Weed Warriors!

Just spotted a great Before/After picture our partners at Green Acres Elementary sent that made us realize our school partners are in the throes of Back to School Weed Wars in their Outdoor ashley-mize-weeded-learning-labLearning Labs. To help, here are some quick tips from our expert Landscape Architects!

In the Mid-Atlantic, Evan Dintaman says:

Stay on top of weed control. Weed a little bit at a time, instead of letting them pile up!
— Allow students to help pull weeds. Some schools tell us their students absolutely love weeding!
— Wear gloves when weeding. Know how to identify poison ivy!
— Be sure to pull weeds from the roots. Otherwise, they will come back quickly.
— When pulling weeds, be careful to not disturb any visible seeds while removing/disposing.
— Dispose of weed debris in yard waste collection (offered by some counties). If you dispose of fresh weed debris on the ground or in a compost bin, the weeds will likely continue to grow and disperse seeds. If disposing in a compost bin, first dry out the weeds on a paved surface in bright sun, or cover the weeds with a tarp until they die back completely.
— Disposing weeds in plastic bags and throwing them in the trash is an option for particularly noxious weeds. Earth friendly, biodegradable bags should be considered first!

In the Southeast Region, Kalle Waterhouse added:

I love the little weed poppers (the end looks like a snake tongue)—they don’t disturb as much of the plantings around the weed in question & they’re GREAT for getting out weeds with big taproots such as dandelion. I also have an affinity for the tool that has a claw on one side and a mini hoe on the other—it’s great for people who have mobility challenges because it’s a powerful, multi-use tool that can be used while staying in pretty much one spot.

Another really fun thing that I suggest to teachers with older students (really any kids 1st grade+ ) is to develop a really scientific experiment with natural weed control measures:
— Measure out 1’x1’ squares (smaller depending on site constraints) and mark them out with string
— Keep one as a control and then create as many additional squares as needed to compare products (I suggest a vinegar spray, one with a baking soda slurry, one with a baking soda and vinegar slurry—always fun because it fizzes!, one with a concentrated salt water spray, etc)
— Keep a journal of observations

I second Evan’s comments regarding keeping on top of it but when that’s not possible, make a back to school event out of it. Invite the teaching teams to come out for a couple of hours, have music & water and catch up on summer stories. Or hold a weeding competition for older kids—winner by weight or quantity of leaf bags stuffed or by time taken to weed a particular area. I don’t recommend this for younger students as they just start pulling out everything in sight 😉

In Texas, Lannie McClelen finishes up with….

Only other things I can think of:

— Keeping everything well mulched.
— Posting the weeds wanted chart. It is crazy how many people do not know how to identify common weeds.
— Here is a recipe for an organic herbicide I like.   Mix 1 gallon of vinegar (10% solution), 4 tablespoons orange oil or d-Limonene, 1 teaspoon fluid liquid dish soap and 1 tablespoon molasses (optional). Pour into a bottle and spray only on targeted weeds.

And last but not least, for pesky weeds that are dug in deep in brickwork or gravel, there is this blowtorch. School policies on open flames will vary, but this is organic and deeply, deeply satisfying. Don’t burn them to a crisp or they’ll regenerate, just wilt them to kill the whole plant.

Teacher Testimonial — Kristie Elliott

In hindsight, it seems like a no-brainer.picture1

I used to create separate lessons for everything.  It was exhausting.  But after working with Out Teach, I saw how easily different lessons could be combined.  It was easy to include science into my writing and math lessons.  Linking subjects together created this continual learning experience, where we would just keep expanding into new standards, not stopping one thing and then starting up another. The Outdoor Learning Lab was a natural place to extend learning, and it was easier than I expected to have subjects taught partially indoors and partially outdoors for labs and experiential learning.   It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. 

Breaking up my traditional way of teaching with “mini-field trip” outside was refreshing. I just loved it all and plan to incorporate it more into my other lessons. I was surprised how well my students behaved, and how well they performed.  They were so engaged and it naturally led to opening up their creativity and ideas. Leading experiential lessons is like swimming with the current, rather than against it.  You’ve still got to know what to do, but you get where you’re going so much faster, and it’s so much less work. 

The ready-made lessons I got were great, but I really enjoyed adjusting and adding onto them so they fit my class and my school-wide initiatives perfectly. Out Teach had an opinion writing lesson on salsa, but I needed the class to work on informational essay writing, so I took my new lesson planning skills and created exactly what I needed.  I had students start with a lot of prior knowledge and then research what goes in salsa.  Growing salsa ingredients, like corn, takes space, so we practiced measurement, area, perimeter and geometry.  We then brainstormed what to do with the salsa we were going to make.  Students suggested donating it to homeless shelters or selling it to raise money for the Outdoor Learning Lab, the latter suggestion bridged over to our math and economic standards nicely.  I loved it because it was a different type of informational writing that was created for them but there was a bigger purpose that motivated them—helping their community. Lots of great “Ah-ha!” moments.  I just love watching kids’ light bulbs turn on when they start making connections to other lessons and standards.

Beyond the lessons, even just getting the students outside was helpful. I found some of my highly active students were more attentive and had better recollection of the information that was shared and discussed. I have a very active, emotional and kinesthetic class, and being outdoors made it for easier for them to engage with the lesson, which helped minimize behavior problems.  And for others, you could tell that moving around outside helped decrease their stress and anxiety which elevated their mood.

My experience with Out Teach was awesome and eye-opening.  Now that I know how to use the outdoors as a tool, and how to plan out experiential lessons, you’ll see my class out there all the time.  Now, my lessons can grow and connect not only their standards, but our community as well.   Thanks Out Teach!

Carolinas June Update

Announcing our next Great Outdoor Learning Laboratory at Devonshire

Out Teach Carolinas is proud to award our next Outdoor Learning Laboratory to Charlotte Mecklenburg School Districts – Devonshire Elementary. Dr Ted Miracle has served as the lead outdoor learning coordinator for several years and this year he was one of 6 teachers engaged in our school-year long professional learning program. Principal Hough has led her schools vision to support experiential learning outdoors as an effective academic tool. This award is brought to Devonshire through the Corporate Support of Novant and Hornets Foundation who will bring 100 volunteers to transform this schools unused outdoor space into an outdoor learning laboratory. This is the 6th school to receive this amazing award to date in the Carolinas.

CMS Schools can now apply for Evergreen Scholarship
Mecklenburg Health Department is once again committed to supporting Out Teach through providing scholarships for our Evergreen Group Training Sessions. Each of these sessions (Fall, Winter, Spring) incorporates 4 hours of CE and an array of resources plus hands-on demonstrations. This is also where we infuse nutrition education into science, math and ELA. Each participating school also receives access to our online coaching center. To apply for this scholarship please reach out to Alec Macaulay, School Partnerships Manager amacaulay@out-teach.org or at 980-297-4181.
Governors Village K-8 STEM Academy
On May 10, Out Teach and 120 Duke Energy Volunteers completed our 5th Outdoor Learning Lab in the Carolinas. This school is the largest K-8 school in the state with more than 2,000 students, so we constructed two outdoor classroom seating areas to accommodate multiple classes at once! Mr. Crow had elementary students outside for an ELA lesson and Ms. Thiel had middle school students doing an observation – both utilizing this space while volunteers were finishing up.
Summer Thoughts and Grants
School is out and summer is upon us. Please don’t leave your school gardens without a strategy to support them. Each school has the opportunity to engage neighborhoods, parents and faith-based neighbors in helping you maintain (weed and water) your garden boxes. One of our favorite grant web resources is the N.C. Office of Environmental Education check it out!


Anne Marie Fayen blog from NSTA

In April, Out Teach’s very own Instructional Coaches, Wendy Kelly and Sammy Wren, presented at the National Science Teachers Association’s annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri. Their session, “Take It Outside: Using the Outdoors as an Experiential Learning Lab” was designed to help educators from across the country use outdoor spaces and engaging instructional techniques to inspire students’ passion for Science.

Anne Marie Fayen, Academic Programs Manager at the Dallas Arboretum, attended the session and shared that Wendy and Sammy “spoke from experience and made going outside to learn sound exciting and, with some planning ahead, not too complicated or overwhelming.”

Below are some of Anne Marie’s favorite tips and tricks from the session:

• Ask teachers to think about a time they connected to nature. What do they remember about the experience? What made it meaningful? They will probably share a childhood memory. How can we help our students have these same positive experiences in nature?

• Create a culture of outdoor learning with your students, and set appropriate rules for learning outdoors. For example, consider going out a specific door (ideally not the same door used for recess/PE) to access your outdoor learning environment.

• Treat the outdoor classroom as a resource for all, like the library or computer lab.

• Have a few basic materials on-hand that students can use to explore the outdoors and engage in hands-on learning:
o Hand lenses
o Thermometers
o Tape (to collect items)
o Small bags (to collect and sort items)
o Safety scissors
o Wooden stakes (for marking locations)
o Something that makes noise, like a harmonica or bird whistle, to get students’ attention

Taking students outside to learn Science, or even do cross-curricular lessons that incorporate Math and Reading/Language Arts, doesn’t have to be difficult. With a few tools, tips, and tricks, students and teachers across the country can take learning beyond the four walls of their classroom!

Gaby Lopez – Sope Creek — 2nd Grade

Out Teach has transformed my teaching, my students, and my outlook on life.

I’d always considered myself a strong teacher.  I worked really hard to create lesson plans that had me lecturing for 10-15 minutes, then letting the kids work independently or in small groups for 25-30 minutes, and then we’d have a closing activity.  It was all very teacher-directed.  It’s just how I’d been trained and how it had always been done.gaby-lopez-sope-creek

But during those lessons, out of 23 students, I’d notice that less than half were ever actively on task and participating.  Especially my ESOL students, who always struggled to grasp new concepts.  So I’d spend more time supporting them and less time challenging the kids who were doing fine on their own.

But then my school partnered with Out Teach.

At first, I was hesitant about joining the Out Teach program. I have never been a “Science” person, or an “outdoorsy” person, but I wanted to challenge myself to try something new.

I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to Out Teach.

My coaching sessions were so HELPFUL! It is great to have an expert in the field watch me teach and build upon their lessons. My meetings with my coach were truly eye-opening.  I got such amazing feedback, techniques I could use the next day, and I didn’t ever feel judged.  In fact, I’ve never felt so supported in my work.

I still remember the last lesson I did with my coach watching, a parts of the plant lesson.   Before, I probably would have shown the students pictures of plant on the board, then had students label drawings, or maybe draw something themselves and label it.  But this time, I made this lesson the hook to our overall fourth quarter STEM PBL project, and had the students examine the tulips they had planted months before. By reviewing the parts of a plant by identifying their importance, we gave my ESOL students a wealth of new vocabulary and word usage.  And they really responded to comparing the functions of different parts of the plants to parts of the human body – which part is breathing?  Which part is drinking? How is it moving nutrients?  It’s all so much more meaningful and relevant in the real world.

It was so wonderful to see ALL the kids actively participating and having vocabulary rich conversations with their peers. All the students challenged themselves with rigor, many finding multiple plants to document. To this day, they all remember information from that lesson.   In addition to getting the right answers on Science tests, I started seeing more descriptive language in essays.

Now that I Out Teach, I know that I shouldn’t restrict myself or my students to the classroom. All my kids deserve engaging instruction and more of a hands-on approach to learning. They all need to get their hands dirty and become more of an active participant in their learning process.

And now that ALL my kids are so eager to participate and take an active role in their group, I get to step back and take on a support role for my students. They have taken over their learning and guided themselves through this whole process.

Now, students are more willing to make mistakes and learn from them.  It was hard for me to learn to let go of the reins and let them explore.  But now, I trust my students to lead themselves down the right path.  Even when I’ve had concerns, the kids keep proving me wrong. These new science and garden concepts make them more eager to learn and discover new knowledge.

With all this new knowledge, I’m never looking back.  Now when I plan lessons, I will allow students to explore for themselves and develop their own conclusions, all while I serve as a support. It will be interesting to see how next year’s students rise to the occasion. A new journey awaits, and I cannot be more eager to begin! Thank you Out Teach for guiding me through this process.

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Out Teach, formerly REAL School Gardens, provides professional development for elementary school teachers. Out Teach prepares them to use school gardens, outdoor classrooms, and green schoolyards to improve instruction through three-dimensional project-based learning, and outdoor experiential inquiry-based education. Professional learning with Out Teach improves hands-on science and STEM education through instructional coaching and digital education resources and improves 21st Century skills.