Apr 14 2022

How K–12 Schools Are Bringing Classroom Technology to Outdoor Learning

As the pandemic forces schools to adapt, some are bringing educational technology to the outdoors.

If you stumble across a group of K–12 school students outside using laptops to track soil levels and search for monarch eggs or observing birdhouses with video cameras, you may have discovered an outdoor learning space.

From informal hammock gardens to high-tech tents, outdoor learning spaces have become markedly more popular over the past few years because of the pandemic. Educators say these spaces give students a chance to breathe fresh air, experience a change of scenery and, most importantly, gain opportunities for increased learning engagement.

In a white paper for the Association for Learning Environments titled “Outdoor Learning: Leave the Classroom Behind,” Prakash Nair, school architect, president and CEO of Education Design International, cites numerous studies that demonstrate the benefits of outdoor learning for students, from decreased bullying to increased observation skills and a better sense of autonomy.

“People create an emotional connection with the outdoors, which facilitates learning,” says Nair. “Outside, students are more creative, more collaborative and more likely to solve problems spontaneously.”

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In an article for Outside, Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, notes that during the pandemic, thousands of schools in the U.S. moved classes outdoors and are planning to make outdoor spaces a long-term part of teaching and learning.

Technology and Grants Get Schools Started with Outdoor Learning

Thanks to a mix of private, state and federal grants, many schools are dipping their toes into outdoor learning programs this year.

“During the pandemic, we wanted kids to have the ability to go outside and take their masks off for a while,” says Brian Engle, assistant superintendent of instructional innovation at Glenview School District 34 in Illinois. The Glenview Education Foundation, a community-run nonprofit, provided funds to purchase multiple mobile stations with yoga mats, chairs and whiteboards for teachers to check out and roll outdoors.

Students have their own learning devices through the district’s one-to-one program, so to extend the Wi-Fi signal, the district installed Aruba wireless access points outside each school building.

Further to the north, Novi Community School District, located in a suburb of Detroit, is also getting started, and has big plans for its nearly 7,000 K–12 students in nine schools. While the district already had several community gardens, this year, with funding from a local business, one school installed a hammock garden, a serene spot where students can read, dream and relax.

The district has plans to expand its outdoor classrooms within the next two years. With a recent $400,000 grant from the state of Michigan, the district plans to add solar-powered greenhouses to five of its elementary schools.

WATCH NOW: Students with disabilities explore tech skills in hydroponic greenhouses.

RJ Webber, assistant superintendent at Novi, also wants to earmark funds for outdoor-focused science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiatives.

“Taking technology into nature can seem counterintuitive. But the goal is to use technology to share and amplify what we can learn outdoors,” Webber says.

His vision includes projects that use coding, programming and 3D design. Outdoor cameras will help students observe nature when it’s too cold to go outside, and sensors can measure soil moisture.

RJ Webber
Taking technology into nature can seem counterintuitive. But the goal is to use technology to share and amplify what we can learn outdoors.”

RJ Webber Assistant Superintendent, Novi Community School District

That technology requires robust infrastructure, so Webber is working with Anthony Locricchio, senior technology coordinator at Oakland Schools also in Michigan, from which Novi contracts its IT services.

“We’re in the middle of completely refreshing our entire network, and installing exterior Wi-Fi access points will be nonnegotiable,” says Locricchio. “RJ Webber is also looking at technologies that use long-range Bluetooth, and all that comes with additional security needs.”

A California District Opens a Sustainable Outdoor Space

Thousand Oaks High School in the Conejo Valley Unified School District in Southern California opened its Sustainable Outdoor Learning Environment (SOLE) classroom in spring 2021. Geared primarily toward STEM classes, the self-sustaining modular outdoor space is shaded by an all-weather solar roof and is situated between two science buildings on the campus.

Schneider Electric had completed several energy efficiency programs with Conejo Valley when the company proposed an outdoor classroom that it would design and build at no cost to the district. “As longtime partners of Thousand Oaks, we were thrilled to pilot the first-of-its-kind SOLE on their campus," says Marc Starkey, a business development executive at Schneider Electric. “We hope it inspires other districts to integrate alternative learning environments.”

The space leverages solar power to operate fans, an 86-inch Promethean touchscreen monitor and outlets for charging laptops.

Schneider worked with the school’s IT department to install Netgear outdoor Wi-Fi access points, connect to the LAN, and set up outdoor-rated cabinets for IT equipment. Starkey and Schneider created the space to be easily replicated at other schools.

DIVE DEEPER: Outdoor access points expand learning’s reach.

District Expands Outdoor Learning Programs

Since the middle of last year, Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school district, has been piloting outdoor learning at five schools. Today, the district is holding its 18 outdoor classes in 20-by-30-foot tents with detachable sides.

“Some of the programs and spaces are more developed than others, but we’ve always had this teaching philosophy of getting outside, getting in touch with nature and harnessing what we have around us,” says Joshua Douds, principal of Centreville Elementary, an FCPS school.

Source: greenschoolyards.org/portland-ps, “Portland Public Schools”

Centreville has been implementing outdoor education for a decade, having long ago discovered that outdoor learning spaces don’t have to replicate indoor classrooms. The school’s program includes multiple outdoor spaces, gardens and trails to nearby woods and ponds.

The district has also adjusted its outdoor programs during the pandemic to accommodate hybrid learning. Some students do lessons outdoors at school while remote students do the same activities in an outdoor space at home. In addition to adding Mist exterior access points, teachers carry Kajeet SmartSpots to provide students Wi-Fi when they go further off campus.

READ THE REVIEW: Wireless access point supports learning outdoors.

The district pays for outdoor programs and equipment through public grants and private partnerships.

“We do outreach in our community, and it supports us,” says Douds. “We also have a very unique culture of teachers who want to impart how humans can make our lives and environment healthier. That’s the power of the outdoors. Kids go outside and play and learn at the same time.”

Illustration by Tracy J. Lee

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