Auburn Speaks
Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development

Outdoor Classroom

Written by Sean Forbes

Outdoor Classroom Project Offers Agriculture Education and Service Learning

Building upon the history of Alabama agriculture to sustain its citizens, the Outdoor Classroom Project establishes infrastructure and instructional support to simultaneously address local needs for school improvement via service-learning efforts in public schools gardens.

NS New BedsAuburn University is home to thousands of faculty, staff, and students who know the value of agriculture as an academic endeavor. This includes those who are involved in AU agriscience education, and they have familiarity with and interest in working with K-12 environs. Program graduates are certified to teach agriscience education, so the students are ideally suited to assist our school partner teachers in their efforts to utilize the outdoor classrooms. This arrangement accommodates the instructional support needs of the schools while providing university students an opportunity to practice their profession. In this way, the Outdoor Classroom Project incorporates service learning.

Service learning, as a form of experiential education, is often confused with community service/volunteerism and internships/apprenticeships. All forms of experiential learning require learners to construct knowledge, skills, and value from direct experience. And, in each approach, there are both learners and those who are served.

But the relationship between groups is distinguishable for each method. For example, community service and volunteerism traditionally require people to address the needs of a community, but the actions of the server are rarely connected to academic course content. The focus of community service is traditionally on those being served. Internships and apprenticeships are usually associated with academic course content, and reflection is common, but community needs are not usually addressed. Here the focus is on benefiting those who serve.

Service learning, instead, is focused on the mutual benefit to all involved (Waterman 1997). Essential elements of any service-learning effort include the following:
• Student learning and development through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs and that are coordinated in collaboration with the school and community
• Integration between the students’ academic curriculum and work with the community that provides structured time for the student to think, talk, or write about what the student did and saw during service
• Opportunity for students to use newly acquired skills and knowledge in real-life situations in their own communities
• Extension of student learning beyond the classroom and into the community in an effort to foster the development of a sense of caring for others (Bringle and Hatcher 2002, Furco 2002).

Kids GardeningFor future K-12 teachers and school leaders, the significance of their involvement in our efforts is that it provides a forum to develop the skills that will serve them as professionals. Effective educational careers require fluid adaptation. The challenges they face are not academic and, thus, cannot be effectively approached through thought experiments. Their education must provide them with an experiential base reflective of the resource and political realities they will face.

In a study of 48 faculty members, Hesser (1995) found strong support for the hypothesis that service-learning programs helped enhance the academic environment of the classroom in several areas: (a) critical reflection, (b) written and oral communication, and (c) critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In a related investigation, Lynton (1995) stated that exposure to authentic social problems helps to improve higher-order thinking skills in students. Service learning in the classroom also betters the educational process by providing a more stimulating environment than the non-service learning class. Blyth, Saito, and Berkas (1997) reported, in a study of 369 public school students, that participants in community-based programs found class somewhat more enjoyable, less boring, and more related to their lives than those students not participating. In all, research supports the idea that properly designed programs can provide both service and learning (Astin 1993).

Currently, each week, agriscience education undergraduate students, in collaboration with teachers, prepare and lead weekly garden-based instructional activities over a 12-week period. Activities are designed to provide K-8 students opportunities to 1) identify/classify issues relevant to the lifecycle of plants and related environmental elements, 2) apply knowledge of content to maintain outdoor classrooms, 3) and experiment with content knowledge with the aim of fostering an awareness of sustainability.

The implementation of agriscience elements in the outdoor classrooms will benefit the undergraduate students by exposing them to the “messiness” of context. Planning is one thing. Delivering is another. Providing support that stretches across the curriculum and serves the needs of the students and the K-8 educators is an invaluable experience to a pre-service teacher.

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