Over the last two years the National Wildlife Federation’s South Central Office has helped facilitate the installation of 22 schoolyard habitats in the Austin Independent School District. Much of this work was accomplished with a grant from the Toyota USA Foundation and a partnership that we have with Austin ISD. The larger goal of this partnership is to help institutionalize the concept of the outdoor classroom within AISD and to connect children with nature.
Our final project is to create a demonstration habitat and outdoor classroom at the Science and Health Resource Center at AISD.
Achievement Gap: Like many urban school districts, the Austin Independent School District struggles to improve its students’ academic performance in science and math and to close the achievement gap between white students and other groups. AISD’s student population is more than 70% minorities, more than 60 percent economically disadvantaged and more than 30% bilingual or English as a Second Language.
On the 2011 Nation’s Report Card for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 8th grade students from Austin ISD of White/Caucasian ethnicity scored 47 points higher than African American students, and 37 points higher than Hispanic students in Mathematics.
This does not bode well for a student’s ability to compete in the world economy as an adult. We need to change this pattern and to find new ways of helping disadvantaged students achieve at high levels, particularly in science and math.
Disconnect from Nature: Today’s children are the first generation to grow up almost completely isolated from nature. Outdoor time for children has decreased by almost 90 percent, while time spent inside and plugged into electronic media, has stretched to 7 hours per day on average.
Aside from contributing to a range of health problems for children, like obesity, diabetes, poor eyesight, and possibly attention-deficit problems, this indoor sedentary lifestyle is depriving children today of the physical, emotional, cognitive, and even spiritual benefits that a healthy relationship with the natural world can provide.
The National Wildlife Federation is also concerned that students who are not connected with nature in a meaningful way at an early age and who lack a good grasp of science, are less prepared as adults to deal competently with complex issues of environmental stewardship, like climate change, the protection of biodiversity, maintenance of water and air quality etc.
There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that a students’ ability to achieve in science and math is greatly enhanced when educators use the natural environment as a context for learning, particularly in an outdoor setting. Research shows that Schoolyard Habitats support learning in three ways:
- Hands-on learning and student-led investigation leads to academic improvement and higher standardized test scores in reading, mathematics, science and problem solving
- Under-resourced and struggling students find renewed support and confidence, often coming farther up the achievement ladder than better-resourced or excelling students
- Students are better behaved and have higher self-esteem as they participate in outdoor education and environmental programs
The National Wildlife Federation sees Schoolyard Habitats as a way to both introduce children to the natural world and improve academic performance. As such we are creating a demonstration habitat at the Science and Health Resource Center (SHRC) at the Austin Independent School District. The SHRC is where all Science teachers in the district receive professional development. It is also adjacent to Pleasant Hill Elementary who will use the habitat as their outdoor classroom. Learn how to be a part of the solution>>
The purpose of the demonstration habitat is to provide:
- a site where the district can train science teachers in outdoor education and field investigation;
- a site where NWF can train AISD facilities and maintenance staff how to maintain a schoolyard habitat;
- a place that teachers can visit to find examples of what they can create on their own campus;
- and finally a field trip destination for both AISD students and surrounding districts.
 Closing the Achievement Gap: Environment as an Integrating Context, Lieberman & Hoody, 1998; and Environment-based Education: Creating High Performance Schools and Students, NEETF, 2000.
 Effects of Outdoor Education Programs for Children in California, American Institutes of Research, 2005; and National Wildlife Federation’s Schoolyard Habitat Program: Houston Independent School District, Danforth, 2005.
 Lieberman & Hoody, 1998; American Institutes of Research, 2005.