Is it better to study natural sciences inside the classroom or outside of school – in the nature, the laboratory, a museum, a science center…? There is no right answer. It depends on the topic, the equipment available, the teacher and many other circumstances. Nevertheless, there are topics which can definitely be very well learned in other places instead of a school classroom. Learning outside the classroom in a natural environment is becoming more and more important because of the need to strengthen the connection between (young) people and nature. Going outside is a good way to enrich curriculum subjects with real life experiences as well as to motivate students.
In January 2011, the Government of Estonia approved the updated national curricula for basic schools and upper secondary schools (More information available in English here). According to the new curriculum, contemporary study methods and other techniques must be used, including active study methods, field trips or outdoor and museum learning activities, among others.
I am going to give a brief overview of the possibilities of outdoor and out-of-school learning of natural sciences in Estonia. Museums, science centers, nature schools and nature centers of the Environmental Board offer a wide choice of curriculum based learning programs for kindergarten, primary and secondary students. Estonian teachers are able to get information about these programs and other events from the web site Environmental Education.
The main task of the Environmental Board (EB) is to implement the state’s policies on the use of the environment and nature conservation. Their other equally important task is related to environmental education. They aim to educate people to care more and take a more responsible attitude towards nature. The EB has 11 nature centres with permanent exhibitions and they offer various nature study programs. A great example is the nature center in Matsalu National Park. In the Matsalu school, groups can schedule program activities on studying soils, insects or water quality, they can take on guided hiking tours with local specialists where students work in groups. They get hands-on tasks to learn about nature. In these 11 nature centers there are programs dedicated to the study of plants, animals, fungi, lichens, landscape, stones and minerals, weather and climate, nature conservation, sustainable development, waste and several other topics. The programs are free but schools have to pay for their transportation.
The Estonian State Forest Management Center (RMK) holds forestry duties but it also builds hiking trails, prepares camping sites and provides education about the natural environment. For instance, the RMK Sagadi Nature School offers 13 different environmental programs about forestry and dendrology for students of all ages as well as continuing education for teachers. The courses are curriculum-based for school use to supplement and reinforce classroom learning. School groups can learn using the on-site forest museum, the nature trails and the laboratory. In the RMK, they believe that, through learning by doing, through group work and cooperative study and by using different methods and all senses students receptivity will increase. The programs by RMK have fees but there are also free campaign programs for schools and kindergartens in winter, spring and autumn.
There are several science centers in Estonia. The aim of the Science Centre AHHAAis to introduce science to everyone and encourage studying through the joy of discovery. In addition to trying out numerous „hands-on“ exhibits on their various exhibitions, visitors can also take part in workshops and enjoy the planetarium and science theater shows. They also offer several special programs for schools. There are 16 different workshops offering several activities such as dissecting a pig’s eye, learning about DNA, making soap, building an electric car or even making chocolate.
Currently, almost all museums offer programs for schools. For example, the Estonian Museum of Natural History offers specially designed curriculum-based nature education classes, which makes it easy to conduct interesting school lessons in the museum. Also, the newly renovated Museum of Health Careis going to design new programs in cooperation with biology teachers so that students can get the most out of them.
This overview does not cover all the possibilities, the choice is wide. The curriculum-based out-of-school programs are popular with teachers and students because going out is always a change and change is as good as a rest. It helps young people gain in-depth understanding of nature and get emotional experiences, new knowledge and skills.
Article written by: Aiki Jogeva, Scientix Ambassador