Youth-Centered Education & Outdoor Science in the Eastern Sierra

Standardized education often forces teachers to fixate on their curricula instead of — and sometimes at the expense of — their students’ learning progress. Students are often taught knowledge as a series of facts they depend on an instructor to impart. What we teach students can often be divorced from their interest if we don’t first allow them to become curious, to wonder about it. In fostering the natural curiosity of youth, we can invite new pathways of learning that teach students to construct their own knowledge from their observations.

Maggie Riley is the outdoor education and science specialist for Inyo County Office of Education, coordinating outdoor programs, which develop critical thinking and problem-solving in young people through environmental stewardship and watershed conservation. Along with her co-worker Mini Doonan, Maggie coordinates outdoor education programs for grades K–8 for Inyo County Schools in collaboration with community partners such as the Bishop Paiute Tribe and various nonprofits and government agencies. The student-centered education model of these programs fosters independently thinking youth, challenging the hierarchy of traditional learning. 

In this interview, Maggie Riley talks about her philosophy of outdoor education and how it helped her develop a new approach to learning that prioritizes developing students’ natural curiosity. 

What led you to become involved in outdoor education? 

I grew up in Southern California, camping and hiking on public lands in California and across the country, including in the Eastern Sierra, where I now live. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a park ranger, but I was discouraged by many well-meaning adults. No matter what I said, they would come up with a reason why I might want to have a backup plan. I let myself get discouraged and didn’t pursue it right away.

In my first year at community college, a wonderful counselor told me about the Orange County Outdoor Science School programs. I applied, which led me to work in several outdoor education programs as a naturalist. That has become my primary career path throughout my life. I have worked at multiple Outdoor Science School programs and campuses run by Orange County, Merced County, and LA County. I went to Humboldt and got a degree in Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, taking just about every natural science course they offered along the way, and came back to get a teaching credential after working as a botanist for the Forest Service, realizing that education was the key to making the world a better place. It wasn’t until I turned 40 that I also finally became the park ranger I always wanted to be, enjoying summers in Yosemite and teaching outdoor science during the school year. 

How do you see outdoor education engaging students in ways that are different from a traditional setting or that are unique to the outdoor setting?

Outdoor education offers full-context learning. Instead of learning two-dimensionally, students experience the learning physically, emotionally, and intellectually – they are IN it. Everyone gets something out of it. Being out in nature is wonderful for social-emotional learning development. Outdoor education is also cross-curricular. You can teach anything outdoors, but it’s especially great for teaching natural sciences. Outdoor education is also helpful for students who have ADHD and find it difficult to focus in a traditional classroom setting. These students can notice and observe things that they then get their classmates to see. It changes students’ perceptions of each other, and learning in an outdoor environment redefines how we gauge success because outdoor education engages youth’s curious and restless spirit. One of the teachers I worked with at LA Outdoor Science School said that outdoor education gave her “tangible hooks to hang new learning on for the rest of the year.” It’s meaningful and memorable for students, which helps teachers, too.

How does outdoor education play out across age groups? 

We are a small rural county and we are both proud and grateful to be able to offer outdoor education programming for K–8. Each grade gets a program, and they build on each other. We’re working on making them more cohesive as they’ve all been developed separately and some by outside organizations that we’ve taken over coordinating. The programming for the younger students is more focused on exploration because we think it’s important to build a good foundation of curiosity. We focus on curiosity and wonder in the first, second, and third-grade program, and we start to get into a little bit more of the specific standards and learning from fourth grade on.

The kindergarten and first-grade students participate in our gardening program, coordinated by Mini, ten weeks in the fall and ten weeks in the spring, with each season culminating in a feast of what they’ve grown. Second and fourth-grade students go on field trips out to a local area of environmental concern for the Bureau of Land Management, Fish Slough, where endangered Owens Valley Pupfish live. When students graduate to third grade, they participate in a monthly walking program developed by the Bishop Paiute Tribe, called “Taking Root.” As part of this program, teachers walk their classes to a natural area near their schools, where we teach an hour-and-a-half lesson to develop students’ science skills such as observation, curiosity/ questioning, documentation, experimentation, and journaling.

This year, in collaboration with the Bishop Paiute Tribe, I developed a new program for fifth-grade students because it was the only grade we didn’t have a dedicated program for. Based on the Taking Root program, fifth graders participate in a monthly walking program we are calling “Branching Out.”

In middle school, we offer our Eastern Sierra Watershed Project field trips. Students study their local creeks and test their water quality in sixth grade. Students go to the lower Owens River in the seventh and eighth grade, which is the largest ecological restoration project of its kind ever undertaken in North America. The water was diverted to LA, and the lower stretch of the river was completely dry for almost 100 years until it was re-watered by an agreement with the LA Department of Water and Power. Our students have been collecting and recording data on its recovery since before the re-watering.

How does outdoor education help center equity in ways that maybe traditional school settings don’t? 

In her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond says part of our goal as educators should be to move our students from being dependent learners to becoming independent learners. We do this by giving students the tools to take charge of their learning, starting with observation and questioning skills. This process teaches them to be independent thinkers and to act like scientists. Through this method of education, the students can begin to construct their own knowledge with instructors acting as guides.

At the BEETLES Leadership Institute, Craig Strang said, “Ask yourself: What’s more important: what you teach students or what students learn?” That stuck with me because it helped me realize that it’s easy to teach many things, but it doesn’t mean students are learning them. When I taught in the classroom, there was all this pressure on pacing and testing and “covering” material to keep up. However, that’s not how most people learn. People learn more organically, by being curious first, wanting to know more, observing, coming up with possible explanations, and fitting those ideas into their existing conceptual frameworks. 

The BEETLES Project Leadership Institute was paradigm-shifting for me. Learning to be a student-centered teacher is incredibly valuable. One of the many things that I liked about what I learned at the Institute was better questioning techniques, such as asking broad questions and practicing neutral responses with students so that they don’t feel like they need to play a game of trying to guess what the teacher is thinking. Instead, it is important to encourage them to think in ways that develop their own understanding of things. Instead of being the “sage on the stage,” I learned to take a step back, center the students, and act instead as a “guide on the side,” helping guide them to correct conclusions (when known). Learning to ask questions and make observations from which they can develop possible explanations from evidence is more important than memorizing a series of facts, no matter how entertainingly we present them. 

A small way we have been working on centering equity is acknowledging the unceded territory of the Owens Valley Paiute tribes on which we conduct our learning. This acknowledgment is not only a recognition of the original stewards of the land; it is also a teaching moment. The kids learn (or recall) the name of the valley to be “Payahüünadü,” meaning “place of the flowing waters.” Part of our work at the Eastern Sierra Watershed Project is to look at those flowing waters and understand how the Paiute people tended the water for generations. It’s particularly important for the 30% or so of our students who are Native when you begin to connect science with who they are, as there is much overlap between Indigenous ways of knowing and current scientific understanding. 

Another small step, but also important for the over 50% of our students who are Latinx and/or Spanish-speaking, is to connect the Spanish language to the language of science. Much of scientific vocabulary is based in Latin, and Spanish is a Latin-based language. Concepts like the solar system, for example, connect back to the Latin and Spanish word for “sun,” being “sol.” It’s like a light goes on when students who speak Spanish learn this and feel empowered. 

What do you hope the students take away from their experience?

Number one, “nature is cool!” (as one of my students once exclaimed) We want them to just like it and think it’s really neat. Two, curiosity and wonder, and having an interest in learning more. If they believe nature is cool, they’re going to have more curiosity about it and develop an appreciation of the Earth’s natural systems, their importance, and what they give us. And then a desire to help take care of the Earth — a sense of stewardship and caring. It all comes down to relationship – (going back to Sobel’s “Beyond Ecophobia”) if they have a positive relationship with the land, they will care enough to learn more and become advocates for it.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention science standards, but yes, NGSS is essential, and they are excellent standards. And we do teach to the standards and build those standards in. But we make the standards easier to teach by fomenting the interest, curiosity, desire to learn more and giving students the tools to explore on their own. There’s an old outdoor ed saying, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It’s the same thing in reverse. If they don’t really care about it, they don’t care to learn more if it doesn’t seem interesting to them. So getting them to care about it and want to learn more is a valuable thing we want them to take away. Always get to the “so what” of what they’re learning – why they should care.

For the future of outdoor education, what are some things that you hope to see happen 

or ways you hope it will expand?

Currently, we have outdoor education programs for grades K–8, but we would like to expand it into high school. And we are working on making our programs more cohesive, so they build on each other more effectively from year to year. 

One of our keys to success is community collaboration through partnering with organizations like the Bishop Paiute Tribe, Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, Eastern Sierra Land Trust, Eastern Sierra Institute for Collaborative Education, the Bureau of Land Management, the LA Department of Water and Power, and local cattle ranchers who sign off on us using their leases for outdoor education. Our docent instructor program also pulls in people from the community to teach our students. 

I hope to see outdoor education stay with the students all year long and not just be something they get when they attend outdoor programs. Empowering teachers is crucial to incorporating the outdoors into their education because they’re with the students more than our outdoor programs. Part of empowering teachers is making professional development training available to them, so they know how to incorporate outdoor learning into their lesson plans, which we did during distance learning this year. Teachers reported using the resources we shared and sending their students out into nature to journal and do assignments with great success. Integrating outdoor science education with classroom education as a regular part of teaching can reinforce all curricular areas and become a valuable routine for students and teachers. One of our middle school teachers said, “I have tried several of the “I notice, I wonder, and it reminds me of” activities with the students. The students enjoy getting out in nature and relaxing while observing plants and animals. We also did some activities where they have to draw plants and animals they see around their house and now that we are in school, around campus. Nature journals are great. We have been doing a new one about every week, especially when they were all on Zoom. I found that they really enjoy those activities – even the 8th-grade boys!” 

It’s wonderful to see these methods spreading to the classroom and even distance learning!