Gardiner Area High School Improves Student Engagement in Earth Science Class Through Outdoor Learning

Gardiner Area High School Students Outdoor Learning

Gardiner Area High School is one of 45 Maine schools that have received an award through RREV, or Rethinking Responsive Education Ventures. Supported by the Office of Innovation at the Maine Department of Education, the RREV initiative is a U.S. DOE grant that provides Maine educators funds to implement innovative, cross-disciplinary learning opportunities to be incorporated into curricula. This grant has allowed schools like Gardiner Area High School to redesign instruction that leads to improved learning experiences for students.

Gardiner Area High School directed their RREV funds to their freshman Earth Science class. Prior to the start of the pilot, teachers reported that students were demonstrating increased incidences of social and emotional issues, declining grades, and significant disengagement. Spearheaded by 2023 Kennebec County Teacher of the Year, Sharon Gallant, the goal of this pilot was to reverse the disengagement by having students in the Earth Science class spend 75% of their class time outdoors. When asked about the idea behind the pilot Gallant said, “I have always known what outdoor learning can do.” Adding that as incoming freshmen, students end up spending a lot more time in the classroom than they had previously. Sharon felt that increasing the time students spent outside engaged in hands-on learning would remedy these issues. After beginning implementation, the feedback from students was resoundingly positive, with subsequent improvements in learning. Sharon described her experience with the implementation of the pilot as “amazing” adding that “it has totally changed my teaching style, and what I know to be great teaching.”

The freshman Earth Science class has navigated many challenges in implementing this pilot, from unexpected weather patterns to tracking mud through the halls after class, but with these challenges came widespread support and improved engagement from students and teachers alike.

Gallant remarked that since implementing this class structure she has been able to teach practical applications of Earth Science, incorporating knowledge that was once “taught at home,” such as what poison ivy looks like, and how to start a fire. Additionally, this class has provided students with a connection to the natural world that was not previously there for many of them, as well as offer indispensable hands-on learning and problem-solving opportunities. From rushing rivers to 10-degree snowy fields, to rock-covered hills, this freshman Earth Science class has had some unique classrooms, to say the least.

After one year of pilot implementation, the RREV team attended one of the outdoor science classes to see the implementation process in action. On this day, the science class was taking place on the Cobbosseecontee Stream and students were to catch, record, and release migrating alewives. An instructor helping to lead the alewife capture noted that their migration was slowing down as spring was progressing, and the science class had been conducting their observations for several days at this stream. The slowing migration was borne out in students’ study on the day of the RREV team’s visit, as the students only caught and recorded one alewife and one elver that day. “That’s real science” remarked Gallant, “Some days you get hundreds of alewives, some days you get one.” 

When the class came to an end, the RREV team accompanied them back to the road where their transportation was. Elaine Bartley – the RREV Project Director – recounted her conversation with a student on the walk back. Elaine asked the student whether they liked outside classes or not, to which the student responded something to the effect of “I’m more of an inside person.” Elaine followed up, “So you would rather be inside learning from a book?”

“Well, if I really want to learn it then I have to be doing it,” replied the student.  This interaction between Elaine and the student emphasizes the ways that Gardiner Area High School’s outdoor education integration pilot has reimagined the ways that students can learn, and redefined what can constitute a classroom.

It is with the help of the RREV grant that awardee schools like Gardiner are able to provide enhanced learning opportunities and experiences for students, and has allowed educators at Gardiner to address the ubiquitous student need for learning through doing in a unique and meaningful way.

RREV is an initiative of the Maine Department of Education, funded by the Education Stabilization Funds through the US Department of Education’s Rethink K-12 Education Models, that bolsters Maine educators’ innovative efforts to support their students with agile, effective, and resilient learning experiences that improve learning outcomes for all students.  

The Maine DOE encourages all schools and districts across the State of Maine to learn more about these innovative educators and their RREV pilots through the RREV website and the online RREV collaborative platform known as EnGiNE. It is through EnGiNE that we hope to continue the momentum to change students’ lives through innovative and responsive educational programs.