'Scientists in Residence' Help Wisconsin Students Learn Outside

May 18, 2017

Spring has finally sprung around Milwaukee! And the warmer temperatures mean plenty of folks are looking for opportunities to get outside -- including teachers and students.

What's the best way to take your lessons outdoors?  That's something the folks in the Cedarburg and West Bend public school districts have been working on all year, with the help of a couple “Scientists in Residence.”

Thanks to funding and support from the Riveredge Nature Center, environmental educators Kendra Swanson and Megan Johnson have partnered with these schools to help students and teachers rethink how to incorporate nature into their learning, and make “outdoor time” a vital part of the school day across all subjects.

First graders in the West Bend School District participate in an outdoor activity as part of their science class.
Credit Rachel Morello

Kendra Swanson describes her community-funded position in the Cedarburg School District as a support system for classroom educators.

"Some teachers do use the outdoor spaces frequently and are really comfortable with it, and some teachers have a lot of reasons that they don't," she says. "So what I'm doing is exploring what some of those barriers are, and looking for ways to increase our open minded-ness about the [value] that comes from learning outside."

"The more adults we have supporting students, the more different kind of learning kids are able to see."

On the day we visit Swanson, she's gathered three classes of fourth graders in a local park. They're playing a game that Swanson describes to the kids as a scavenger hunt-slash-elaborate game of tag. In class, they've been learning about ecosystems -- and this activity will give them a physical opportunity to see how food chains work. 

Cedarburg fourth grade teacher Shari Rowe says working with Kendra has helped her and her colleagues rethink the way they approach lesson planning. 

"It's so nice to work with someone on staff who has these activities planned," Rowe says. "Getting the kids outside and really appreciating the environment is tying into all subject areas."

Swanson says she enjoys being an added part of the students' learning community -- specifically, being someone who opens them up to new learning experiences. 

"The more adults we have supporting students, the more different kind of learning kids are able to see. Maybe they're not a great classroom learner, but that doesn't mean they're not a good student, it doesn't mean they're incapable of learning in other ways. So, outdoor education really provides an opportunity to help cater to kids that don't necessarily learn best at desks."