Connecting Students with Nature: Conducting Outdoor Lessons the COVID-19 Way

LIM Cheng Puay
Ridge View Residential College (RVRC)

Cheng Puay talks about how his team adopted a blended approach to ensure that despite social distancing constraints, outdoor experiential learning remained a core component of the Year 2 RVRC forum “Connectivity of City in Nature”.

Photo courtesy of Lim Cheng Puay

The Ridge View Residential College (RVRC) Year 2 forums emphasise experiential learning where there is close engagement between the instructor and students in an outdoor setting. These forums are compact sessions totalling 12 hours, and offer a range of experiences for students to choose from, including overseas expeditions, outdoor tree planting sessions, and local field trips.

These outdoor learning sessions draw upon a mediated learning experience (Feuerstein & Feuerstein, 1991), where the instructor guides the students in the outdoor learning process. In essence, the instructor engages students in outdoor learning by orientating them to unfamiliar environments, and highlighting learning features and objects observed on-site during field trips (Scarce, 1997). In such situations, there is interaction between the instructor, students, and the environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed constraints on outdoor learning. The original format of the instructor leading a group of 15 to 20 students on outdoor field trips is no longer possible. My colleagues and I have thus transitioned these face-to-face classes into a blended learning approach integrating self-directed field trips, Zoom sessions, and social media.

One of the forums, titled “Connectivity of City in Nature”, aims to help students understand green spaces in Singapore and visualise the importance of the connectivity of these spaces. The main motive is to get students out of the classroom and immersed in the green spaces of our “City in Nature”.

The sequence of the forum is as illustrated in Figure 1: namely an initial online session where students were briefed on the task; students visit two green spaces and share their observations and learning through Instagram posts and maps; they convene online as a class after two weeks to give feedback and share experiences.

Figure 1. Sequence of the “Connectivity in Nature” forum.

During their field trips, students kept in touch with their instructors through designated Telegram chat groups. During the online sessions, students utilised online tools to visualise the outdoor environment, and to add a sense of realism and authenticity to the Zoom session (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. A virtual tour of campus greenery using Google Maps.

All 50 students completed the two field trips and submitted evidence of their learning. An example of a student’s submission is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Route taken by the student exploring Jurong Lake Gardens, including calories burnt.

Students were required to share interesting things they observed in these green spaces. An example of a student’s sightings is illustrated in Figure 4. As observed, it was a fruitful trip for the student as he caught sight of a variety of animals, such as the Red Jungle Fowl and Oriental Pied Hornbills.

Figure 4. Interesting sightings and selfie by a student on a self-guided field trip to Pasir Ris Park.

To determine students’ experience on this forum, we did a simple survey to gather feedback. We asked them to list three main things they learnt from the forum. A word cloud was generated based on 31 responses (Figure 5). The words “green spaces”, “connectivity”, and “importance” were most frequently mentioned.

Figure 5. Word cloud highlighting takeaways about the forum.

Students also submitted reflections as part of the required learning artefacts for this forum. Here is an excerpt of one such reflection:

“The connectivity of green space is important for biodiversity because many animals have the need to migrate between different areas. It is important to achieve a balance of the usage of the green space.”

Similar to what was observed in the student feedback, points on connectivity, balance of land use, and protection of green spaces feature prominently in this student’s reflection. This was what we hoped students would reflect on during their self-directed field trips.

As we implement the outdoor learning model under COVID-19 restrictions, it is possible to adopt a blended format leveraging on technology to engage students online, and to track and monitor them on their self-directed field trips. For me, the hardest part in adopting this approach, especially for the self-directed field trips, was letting go and trusting the process. As long as the task is clearly set with a comprehensive safety briefing, outdoor learning is still possible without the instructor being physically present.

 

LIM Cheng Puay is a lecturer at RVRC, and is happiest bringing students outdoors. He firmly believes in allowing students to have first-hand experience interacting with the elements in the natural environment. Cheng Puay is also a volunteer nature guide and has volunteered with the International Coastal Cleanup since 2000.

Cheng Puay can be reached at chengpuay@nus.edu.sg.

References

Feuerstein, R. & Feuerstein, S. (1991). Mediated learning experience: A theoretical review. In R. Feuerstein, P. S. Klein, & A. J. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Mediated Learning Experience: Theoretical, Psychosocial and Learning Implications. London: Freund.

Scarce, R. (1997). Field trips as short-term experiential education. Teaching Sociology, 25(3), 219-226. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1319398