The world – or at least a large swathe of Israel – was their classroom. An unusual international conference for science teaching experts started out at the Clore Garden of Science, on the Weizmann Institute campus. From there the “nomadic” conference made its way down to Eilat at the southern tip of the country, Jerusalem in the east and points in between.
Participating in the first international Outdoor Learning Environment conference were science education researchers from the US, UK, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, Norway, Australia and Israel. “Outdoor” in this context does not necessarily imply the “great outdoors” – just beyond the front door can sometimes be enough. The idea, according to conference organizer Prof. Nir Orion, is not just about thinking outside the box. It involves physically stepping outside the box – breaking through the walls of the classroom and integrating the real world into the world of learning. Once students are learning in an outdoor setting, he says, they can easily grasp the relevance of their lessons to their daily lives, and the things they learn through first-hand experience and investigation will remain with them much longer than facts they have been spoon-fed in class. Outdoor learning, he says, needs to be an integral part of the school experience, alongside - and equal to - the classroom, lab and computer center. That is why each outdoor learning activity starts and ends in the classroom and/or lab. Orion is passionate about this idea, and he has spent the last three decades investigating effective ways of conducting lessons outside the classroom and developing methods and curricula for different age groups. Over the years, these ideas and models have spread around the world.
This first-ever international conference on the subject is evidence that others are becoming passionate, as well. Among other things, participants learned that teaching outside the classroom can knock down more than one kind of wall: Migrating from the pristine desert geological formations of the Ramon crater to sites of environmental degradation at the Dead Sea, from the underwater nature reserve at Eilat to the urban environment of Jerusalem, they saw that geology, ecology and human society all shape the world. All turn out to be ideal subjects for learning outside the classroom: The subjects covered over the course of the conference included chemistry, physics, biology, earth sciences, sociology, history, religion, geography and literature. Participants had the chance to present their own research on integrating the outdoor learning environment into the formal school plan, to visit schools in Israel where outdoor learning is implemented and to experience outdoor activities geared to all age groups.
The Clore Garden of Science was also the meeting place for a recent get-together of 80 Israeli physics teachers. The teachers are all members of “learning communities of physics teachers”: local groups that hold face to face meetings where ideas and learning materials are exchanged and questions aired. The groups themselves are led by enterprising physics teachers, many of them graduates of the Rothschild-Weizmann Masters’ degree program for outstanding science teachers. Dr. Esther Bagno, Prof. Bat Sheva Eylon and members of the Institute’s Science Teaching Department provide guidance and materials to the teachers who lead the groups. This project is funded by the Trump Foundation. The important role of the Rothschild-Weizmann graduates in this endeavor fits in with this project's philosophy, which says that to have the greatest effect on science education, invest in advancing the best teachers. Innovations and improvements will flow from this circle through the rest of the educational system.
And truly, if science teachers are to provide students with a positive learning experience, they should be inspired (not to mention entertained) themselves. At the year-end meeting, the teachers first heard a lecture from Weizmann Institute astrophysicist Prof. Avishay Gal-Yam on the latest research on supernovae, the births of stars and black holes. Then the teachers presented the innovative activities that they have developed to get their classes engaged with physics, followed by a workshop on teaching physics through circus tricks, and another one on the physics of motors, microphones and loudspeakers, as well as guided tours of the Garden of Science exhibits.