Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

How Do We Approach Teaching?

We use best practices in science education to inspire wonder and curiosity about the natural world.

BEETLES resources are built around five primary design principles.

Just being in nature has many benefits, but when students learn approaches for how to observe, ask questions, and make connections, their wonder and curiosity increase, and they enthusiastically explore their surroundings. Learning, engagement, and enjoyment are multiplied when students make their own first hand, unfiltered, extended observations of the details of nature. Great instructors know how to step aside, guiding only as necessary, so students have the profound, sometimes transformative experience of observing organisms and phenomena. When students look closely at the veins of a leaf, a filter-feeding barnacle, or a salamander trudging towards water–then ask questions or form explanations from their observations, they understand the natural world a little better. By devoting time and attention to these firsthand observations, students also develop compassion and cultivate a relationship with nature. When students build intimacy and connection to the land, water, and organisms around them, they deepen their relationship with nature and grow their capacity for lifelong curiosity and inquiry. These universal experiences of humans throughout history are essential building blocks of present-day environmental literacy.

Students learn science most effectively when they engage in the same practices scientists use. When students make careful observations, ask questions, and attempt to explain mysteries in nature, their wonder and curiosity becomes a source of joy, and their relationship with nature deepens. As they come to understand the importance of evidence and how to engage in respectful exchange of ideas using language of uncertainty, they develop a sense of scientific fairness and humility, open-mindedness, honesty, and integrity. Indigenous people worldwide have engaged in these same practices since long before the word “science” existed. Engaging in practices of science helps students become critical consumers of information and grow into responsible and engaged decision-makers. Developing a mindset of curiosity and reasoning helps students learn how to learn in any context in life. Thinking like a scientist involves engaging directly with nature and learning through discussions. Using science language to share observations and ideas builds academic language and disciplinary literacy. It also builds students’ positive identities as learners and gives them confidence to continue their explorations.

Much learning takes place when students make sense of experiences by putting their ideas into words and comparing their ideas to those of others. To be truly effective, educational experiences need to be rich with intentional opportunities for student discourse. When students engage in discussions that build on prior knowledge, encourage divergent thinking, and challenge the strength of their evidence, they actively deepen their conceptual understanding of complex ideas. In discussion, students practice clarifying their thinking, communicating ideas effectively, and asking productive questions. They learn to think critically and creatively. Discussion validates students’ contributions to their own learning. To an instructor, student talk and discussion can be a window into students’ brains, providing a view of their prior knowledge and current understanding. Leading discussions effectively takes skill and practice, and depends on an instructor’s ability to create a “culture of talk.” Instructors who lead productive discussions use broad questions, cultivate a safe space for sharing ideas, focus on interesting topics, and respond non-judgmentally to students’ ideas. Most of all, they’re genuinely interested in how students are putting ideas together to make sense of their experiences.

Research on deep learning shows that students need to become authentically engaged, connect new ideas to lived experiences and prior knowledge, mess around with ideas and interesting things around them, make sense of their experiences and phenomena, figure things out, build understanding of concepts, apply what they have learned to new contexts, and reflect on what experiences helped them to learn. The Learning Cycle is an effective, flexible, research-based model for designing student-centered instruction. Using it to design or improve lessons, lesson sequences, units of study, and programs ensures that students have these authentic opportunities for learning and meaning-making. The Learning Cycle includes five phases: invitation, exploration, concept invention, application, and reflection. Using the Learning Cycle connects with other Design Principles by engaging students directly with nature and ideas, and helping students to think and participate in discussions like scientists. The Learning Cycle can also provide a useful structure that promotes equitable, inclusive and culturally relevant student-centered learning experiences.

Students learn in the context of their lived experiences, family histories, and cultural identities, including race, socioeconomic status, gender, and many others. Instructors remove barriers to learning when they affirm students’ cultures and lived experiences; show genuine cultural curiosity and humility; and recognize, validate, and make space for students to share their own perspectives, experience, and expertise. Creating inclusive, equitable, culturally relevant learning environments requires instructors to reflect on their own lived experiences and unconscious biases that impact how they design learning experiences and interact with learners. Unconscious biases are a normal part of being human and awareness of them can help avoid potential negative impacts on learners. The other design principles support the goal of creating inclusive and culturally relevant learning environments by putting students and nature at the center of the experience.

We stand on the shoulders of giants! BEETLES is influenced by the work of many science and environmental educators, and educational researchers. Here is a short list of some of the most influential authors and publications:

  • Atkin, J. M. & Karplus, R. (1962). Discovery or invention. The Science Teacher, 29(2), 121-143.
  • Bybee, R. M. (1997) Achieving Scientific Literacy: From Purposes to Practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Darling-Hammond, L., Wei, R. C., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession. Washington, DC: National Staff Development Council.
  • Lemke, J. L. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.
  • Lieberman, G. A., & Hoody, L. L. (1998). Closing the achievement gap. State Education and Environment Roundtable Report.
  • Michaels, S. and O’Connor, C. (2012). Talk science primer. TERC: Cambridge, MA.
  • National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • National Research Council. (2010). Surrounded by science: Learning science in informal environments. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • National Research Council. (2011). A framework for K–12 science education; practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from
  • Newberry, T., & Holtan, G. (2005). The Ardent Birder: On the Craft of Birdwatching. Random House LLC.
  • Norris, K. (1998). Mountain Time: Reflections on the wild world and our place in it. Oakland, CA: University of California, Natural Reserve System.
  • Osborne, J., (2010). Arguing to learn in science: The role of collaborative, critical discourse. Science, 328 (23), 463-466.