Kristen Emmett's picture
Hands-on learning outside the classroom improves science outcomes
Kristen Emmett
May 14, 2012 - 5:11pm

How do students best learn science? If you’ve ever experienced a NatureBridge program, you won’t be surprised to find out that students who who engage in hands-on science, do science-related activities outside of the classroom, or work in groups to do science show higher levels of science achievement than those who do not. These were among the findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2011 science assessment, the most comprehensive study of student science achievement in the U.S. to date.

Science scores improving, but performance gaps persist

Compared to 2009, the average eighth grade science score improved from 150 to 152, with 65% (up from 63%) of students performing at or above Basic level. The performance gap narrowed between white students and both black and Hispanic students, but persisted between male and female students, with male students performing five points higher on average than female students. Low-income students (measured as those receiving reduced-price school lunches) performed on average 27 points lower than students from higher-income families.

Science learning in action

Just a few weeks ago, I saw up close how hands-on learning in nature’s classroom can engage students and spark learning as I led students from Jane Addams K-8 School on their NatureBridge program.

To build on our theme for the week, you can be a scientist, we did a comparative study measuring the number of plant species along a transect in a protected forested area vs. a field formed as a result of homesteading. The students got down on their knees and worked in pairs to carefully observe their square meter and identify the number of different plant species growing in it.

Working as a team to interpret their data, the students found that the forested area had a greater number of plant species per square meter and a greater range in the number of plant species between square meters compared to the "homogenous" field. We discussed how to extend this study to the entire Olympic National Park as well as the importance of random sampling techniques.

Not only did the students absorb the lesson, they also drew connections between the lesson and their lives and explored the practical implications of the research they were doing.

Given the mixed findings of the recent science assessment, a reliable chemistry joke comes to mind: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.” Environmental science education continues to be a part of the solution; together environmental education organizations are building scientific literacy among young people.


The NAEP 2011 science assessment measured achievement levels of 122,000 eighth grade students from public and private schools in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense schools, and Bureau of Indian Education schools. It measured students’ knowledge and abilities in physical science, life science, and Earth and space sciences.

To learn more, check out a Summary of Major Findings or download the full report: The Nation's Report Card: Science 2011.


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