Students, Faculty Welcome Outdoor Instruction

When they’re not fording streams or traversing the Whites, Professor Jamie Hannon’s adventure education students are often indoors under artificial lighting. This semester, students from his and other disciplines are enjoying enhanced solar exposure.

The University’s many modifications to ensure health and safety include encouraging faculty to bring students outside when possible, and several professors have incorporated the concept. This fall’s unusually fine weather has helped.

Hannon’s indoor PowerPoints have taken a backseat to whiteboard writing in an outdoor classroom. He sees evidence supporting Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which proposes that exposure to natural environments reduces mental fatigue and improves concentration. “Outdoors, students can look away for just a moment and that’s enough to reset so they can tune in again,” he observes. “But when they’re indoors they just reach the saturation point and then they’re done. I think the outdoor setting is working with their brains in a way so they are better able to listen and pay attention.”

Several science courses have expanded outdoor lab and field experiences, including Professor Amy Villamagna’s environmental science and policy class, conducted entirely outside up to now. “We have utilized our outdoor lab space even more this year with frequent visits to Langdon Woods, the Baker River, Fox Park, ‘Secret Beach,’ and the Silver Center Amphitheatre,” she says.

Professor Lisa Doner’s environmental science course is a split class that comes together for outdoor labs only, and also includes students doing their labs remotely. “I have to choose labs that the students can do either individually outside, or in small groups,” she says. The format is working well for Marc Furtado ’24. “We usually meet outside and gather in groups, with masks of course, and proceed to do our lab,” he says. “I love being outside and it helps reduce my stress levels. I think outdoor learning will be a huge help for this course because it will be a great way to see if the student wants to be outside for their profession, whatever it may be.”

Professor Diana Jolles’s biology students are conducting labs both remotely and on campus, where they congregate (with masks, physically distancing) on the patio outside Boyd Science Center, using microscopes, gas sensors, data loggers, lab reagents, and other specialized tools that they don’t have access to at home. “Offering some in-person, outdoor lab experiences brings my course that much closer to universal design without increasing health risk for course participants,” she says. “I also want students to realize that a lot of ‘lab work’ happens in field hospitals, in underdeveloped countries, and in many other contexts that we might consider nontraditional.”

Kirsten Hawksley ’23, one of Jolles’s students, likes the outdoor component. “The change of environment definitely enhances my learning as opposed to sitting in a classroom. When I talk about this experience to friends and family, I mostly just mention how cool and different it is because it’s not something you typically see.”

Artists have embraced en plein air painting for centuries, and Professor Mike Heffernan’s drawing class continues the tradition this semester. He knows, through more than 20 years’ experience teaching outdoors, that coping with natural, manmade, or atmospheric interruptions are integral to the experience.

“There’s a level of distraction that students need to deal with, so you kind of want to go to a place where not a lot of their friends are walking by,” he says. “I try to get out as much as possible. Indoors, students are bound by four walls, but outside, they have to be more proactive regarding their composition. Outside is more expansive—you have to find your focus.”

Heffernan’s indoor lessons on value, through which students grasp the influence of light and dark, become more tangible outdoors when a sunny day turns cloudy. “That’s what I really like, it’s not a photograph but an extended period of time,” he says. “If a shadow is going one way at the beginning then another way later, I put them both in.”

A lot of the non-art students have never looked at their world that way, he notes. “They have to slow down, see what’s in their world and see what’s there.”

Teaching outdoors adds an element of unpredictability, but Hannon, the adventure education professor, doesn’t see this as a liability. “It was really windy one day and to teach I had to yell. I have a giant class and students were actually leaning in—trying to listen!” he laughs.

This semester’s experiences have confirmed his belief that direct instruction still seems to reach students best. “Now that I’m writing things on the board and standing differently, it’s way more interactive and the students are so much more engaged and are asking more questions,” he says.

Post-COVID, lessons learned from this year’s outdoor teaching are likely to continue influencing Plymouth State faculty pedagogy.