From Virtual Experience to the Natural World


Like Henry David Thoreau or E.O. Wilson, students and teachers love to step outside the classroom for hands-on experiences in the natural world. Science teachers generally expect that a fun outdoor activity will guarantee student engagement.  Fulfilling that noble intention, however, demands that you answer these two questions:

  1. How do you focus student learning in this new setting?
  2. How do you assess and document what students learn?

In the Classroom

Before you leave the classroom, prepare students to understand what they will see. Make sure they are familiar with any new terms and concepts they’ll encounter beyond the school walls. Technology can be extremely helpful in this regard.

Let’s say you are working on a water quality lesson. Ultimately, you’d like students to identify bio-indicators to determine the health of a lake, stream, or pond. But how will they know what to look for? How does the presence or absence of certain organisms give us information about water quality? How, in other words, will you establish the prior knowledge that is crucial to learning and that shapes both what we perceive and how we perceive it.

Ideally, you’d want students to complete an in-class lesson that covers the same material they’ll encounter in the field.


In VLab: Stream Ecology, students use this data sheet to record their observations.

Curriculum Pathways has a wide range of virtual labs to do just that.

For the water-quality example, you’d have students complete the Stream Ecology virtual lab in SAS Curriculum Pathways. Using this simulation, students explore the effect of various pollutants on stream health, collect data, and draw conclusions based on that data.

At a time when many people imagine a sharp divide—or even an antagonism—between technology and nature, here we see precisely the opposite:  the virtual experience prepares students to more fully appreciate and understand the natural world.

In the Field

To assess and document learning in the field, teachers often create an artifact, such as a worksheet, for students to collect data. Again, technology can make the process more efficient—and more fun.

If your students have iPads, you might consider using an app like Data Notebook, which lets students take control of their learning and monitor their progress. Students and teachers will benefit from built-in templates for field-trip goals, checklists, plus/deltas, spelling lists, and histograms. Data Notebook even includes a scratch paper template where students can load pictures, create drawings, and more. A new text page enables students to take notes, keep a journal, or perform any other writing tasks organized in their notebook.

Students can also add sections in order to set, monitor, and reflect on individual goals by subject. Notebooks can now be emailed to teachers, parents, or friends—who may recognize in the pages the work of a budding Thoreau or Wilson.

Consider some of our other virtual labs that help bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world.

VLab: Carbon Cycle
VLab: Free Fall

VLab: Tides
VLab: Seasons
VLab: Eclipses



About Author

Ada Lopez

Ada’s goal is to help improve children’s lives. Her inspiration to develop technologies that enhance teaching and learning comes from her years in the classroom. Ada taught high school biology in South Florida and middle school science in North Carolina. She earned The National Braille Press Hands on Award for co-authoring Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn.

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