Today’s blog comes from the Wild Awake project which is a not for profit social enterprise.  Its purpose is to develop and provide learning which inspires change towards a more sustainable planet, and support people to live healthy and happy lives which respect natural limits.  It achieves this through providing learning which reconnects people with the natural world through first-hand experience.  It brings educational expertise in terms of curriculum development, writing learning resources, educational strategy, training and consultancy.  Its objectives are to …

  • develop and provide learning which inspires change towards a more sustainable planet.

  • support people to live healthy and happy lives which respect natural limits.

  • draw inspiration from nature to rethink how human systems are designed.

  • reconnect people with the natural world through first hand experiences.

  • provide educational services such as curriculum development, learning resources, training and consultancy in pursuit of the above.

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Getting outdoors does not have to mean long bus journeys to distant field centres.  Even the most urban school has a wealth of opportunities on their doorstep. And in these days of COVID-19, even a seemingly ordinary garden can become a playground for exploration.  The Urban Science project set out to prove that all schools can engage with the science on their doorstep, and create meaningful learning for a sustainable future.

Why does this matter?  Increasingly we are becoming an urban nation with more than 70% of people living in cities.  These cities are responsible for the majority of our carbon emissions.  If we seriously want to address climate change then our urban environment is an essential place to start. And our urban environments provide excellent real-world contexts for learning, a context which all students are familiar with simply from their daily journey to and from school.  Setting learning in a real-world context matters, especially in issues like climate change where many people struggle to find emotional equivalents of their intellectual understanding.  We know changes in behaviour are driven by our emotions and not facts alone; situating that knowledge in a meaningful context is more likely to stimulate positive emotional responses towards action.

Students at Thomas Estley Community College started exploring climate change and sustainability evidence and myths; it was clear to the lead teacher that several climate change myths persist.  It was when the class moved on to apply their learning to a real-life situation that the ‘penny dropped’ for many of them.  Challenged to think about how they can tackle climate change and reduce heating costs, students came up with the idea of living walls.  They created test-houses using cardboard boxes and affixed plants to the walls to mimic a full-sized living wall.  This provided opportunity for students to not only investigate insulation, but also explore the potential multiple benefits of living walls in terms of reducing air pollution and providing a nesting habitat for birds; a good example of thinking systemically.

Students at Moat College chose a traditional ecology Required Practical on distribution of a species.  This was placed in a wider context of cities, food and pollination.  This started with eliciting students’ current knowledge on the topic and clearing up misconceptions.  In defining key terms, attention was drawn to the role biodiversity plays in food production and in particular the role of pollinators.  This gave the context for the Required Practical, investigating the distribution and abundance of plants which attract pollinators. Recommendations where provided to improve the school grounds to attract pollinators and links made into urban food growing.  This led into discussion about diet and even urban planning to increase space for local food growing … all located in a real-world context of the student’s own community.

Of course, there is a place for lab-based science. However, getting outside provides opportunities to enrich learning and challenge students.  Whereas in a lab external variables can be controlled and monitored, outside they cannot.  This stretches students to think about scientific process and how to structure tests which are valid; they also need to be aware how external factors might influence their results and explain why.  After all, the real-world is not a laboratory.  And it matters in student grades. Recent chief examiners reports reiterated the necessity for students to carry out all required practicals; sadly, many learn about species abundance and frequency through PowerPoint rather than a quadrat.

The Urban Science project offers teachers a series of practical learning modules easily adaptable to their local community context.  They provide activities around a 4-stage inquiry model which supports working scientifically.  Trialled by teachers, they have proven to be a valuable asset in taking science out of the classroom and into the real-world of students.  Nine modules are currently available addressing climate change, biodiversity, UV light, living walls, air pollution, water, mobility, soils and waste will be released over the coming months.

Visit urbanscience.eu to learn more and/or contact richard@wild-awake.org

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Authors: Richard Dawson, Wild Awake; Margaret Fleming, Wild Awake; Maarten Taas, Beauchamp College, Leicester; and Luke Hillman, Thomas Estley Community College, Leicester