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.

Most youth have few opportunities to explore nature, and don’t know how to be in nature without becoming bored. If taught how to interact with and explore the natural world (not just taught about it), students leave outdoor science school excited to seek out time in nature. If students develop tools for directly engaging with nature, then instructors can step aside, guiding only as necessary. Direct observation of organisms and phenomena is a profoundly moving, even transformative experience, and one that is not often accessible in classrooms. When students look closely at a part of the natural world–like a leaf or a salamander–then ask questions or form explanations from their observations, they fall a little in love with it. They cultivate a relationship with and deeper understanding of the natural world. These experiences are common to nearly every field scientist and naturalist, and are essential building blocks of environmental literacy.

When students make careful observations, ask questions, attempt to explain mysteries in nature, and understand the importance of evidence, their wonder and curiosity explodes. An emphasis on developing scientific habits of mind and reasoning skills helps students do science, leads them to better understand science, helps them become critical consumers of information, and deepens their relationship to the natural world. When field instructors model science language and students use it to share observations and ideas, students build academic language and disciplinary literacy.

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.

The learning cycle is an effective, flexible, transformative, and widely used model for designing instruction that’s based on how people learn. It can be used to improve any lesson or program. This practical and memorable model helps instructors design educational experiences consistent with what we know about how people learn. The learning cycle includes five phases: invitation, exploration, concept invention, application, and reflection. Although the learning cycle is well known, it’s not so easy to apply effectively to instructional design. It takes practice and reflection to develop learning cycle-based experiences.

Students learn in the context of their cumulative life experiences, family histories, and cultural identities, including race, socioeconomic status, and gender identity. Quality instruction affirms individual’s cultures and lived experiences. Educators should show cultural curiosity and humility, recognizing the many ways students’ lives, experiences, and values may be different from their own and making space for students to share diverse perspectives. Creating inclusive, equitable, and culturally relevant learning environments also requires that educators have opportunities to reflect on their own lived experiences and unconscious biases that impact how they design learning experiences. Unconscious biases are a normal part of being human and awareness of them can help us avoid discriminating against or oppressing people unintentionally.

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.