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Outdoor Education
May 2020


What does the research say about best practices for outdoor education, place-based education, and/or environmental education that most effectively promote student learning within a middle or junior high school?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Aguilar, O. M., & Krasny, M. E. (2011). Using the communities of practice framework to examine an after‐school environmental education program for Hispanic youth. Environmental Education Research, 17(2), 217–233. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Environmental education researchers have called for a greater analysis of "learning" using existing theories. One suggested theory is situated learning. This sociocultural theory of learning contends that learning is a social process that occurs as individuals participate in communities of practice (Wenger, 1998). This study aims to enhance our understanding of the usefulness and applicability of the community of practice framework through examining learning as a social process in an after-school environmental education program. Results indicate the framework was useful for identifying the environmental education programs as communities of practice. The framework was further applicable in describing learning as changes in identity formation as a result of participation with the programs. The empirical evidence suggests that environmental programs, due to their free-choice nature and multiple opportunities for participation, uniquely allow for the development of joint enterprise, mutual engagement and shared repertoire and therefore appear suitable contexts to further study sociocultural theories of learning."

Ardoin, N. M., Bowers, A. W., Roth, N. W., & Nicole Holthuis, N. (2018). Environmental education and K-12 student outcomes: A review and analysis of research. The Journal of Environmental Education, 49(1), 1–17. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Many practitioners and researchers describe academic and environmental benefits of environmental education for kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) students. To consider the empirical underpinnings of those program descriptions, we systematically analyzed the peer-reviewed literature (1994–2013), focusing on outcomes of environmental education programs with K-12 students. In the resulting sample of 119 articles, we identified 121 unique outcomes, finding that most articles reported positive findings from the programs under study. Reflections stemming from the review highlight the versatility of environmental education, while also suggesting opportunities for bolder and more diversified approaches in research design and thinking."

Ghadiri Khanaposhtani, M., Liu, C. J., Gottesman, B. L., Shepardson, D., & Pijanowski, B. (2018). Evidence that an informal environmental summer camp can contribute to the construction of the conceptual understanding and situational interest of STEM in middle-school youth. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 8(3), 227–249. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Youth are introduced to STEM topics through informal settings like science camps, aquaria, and zoos. In these interactive and sensory-rich environments, a well-designed program can help participants to acquire knowledge and cultivate interest through experiential learning. Given the importance of informal activities in environmental education, it is crucial to identify which contextual components lead to successful learning outcomes. Thus far, research in environmental STEM education has focused on brief experiences, such as one-time visits to curated environments like aquaria. Investigating the impact of multi-day/longer experiences in natural settings is critical because the level of engagement with the STEM topic and the interaction with the learning environment in such experiences have different cognitive and affective impacts. To address these current limitations, we explored whether there is evidence that a four-day, immersive outdoor soundscape ecology camp contributed to situational interest and conceptual understanding of middle-school youth. During the soundscape camp, a variety of evidence was collected through different instruments including drawing activities, questionnaires, an interview, and field observations. Through a qualitative analysis and open coding, we identified three core principles of informal outdoor curricular design that positively contribute to participants’ learning experiences, including direct experience with nature, the use of authentic technology, and exercises that promote collaborative teamwork. We argue that activities that promote scientific practices and engagement with authentic tools in a real-world context creates a learning environment in which participants collaboratively construct deep conceptual understanding of different aspects of environmental STEM topics and foster interest in the context of science inquiry."

Kervinen, A., Uitto, A., & Juuti, K. (2020). How fieldwork-oriented biology teachers establish formal outdoor education practices. Journal of Biological Education, 54(2), 115–128. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Fieldwork is an important part of biology as well as science and biology education. However, teachers perceive several reasons for the limited use of fieldwork in schools. Further, outdoor education is often organized as a single field-trip guided by outdoor educators, and little research has been done on fieldwork as a regular part of formal biology education. This case study explores three secondary-school biology teachers who don't typically use outdoor education as a major part of their ecology courses for 8th grade students (median age 14). Berger and Luckmann’s theory of the process of institutionalization as a theoretical background is used to interpret the pedagogical and organizational choices of the case study teachers. Analysis of the interviews of the selected three teachers revealed pedagogical and organizational means through which outdoor teaching is institutionalized into a regular activity in biology lessons. The teachers considered regularity, assessment practices and the school curriculum as major tools to legitimate outdoor learning as a formal schoolwork and foster successful learning. However, they also emphasized students’ freedom during outdoor activities. The findings are discussed in terms of how the teachers succeeded in combining the institutional order of formal schooling with students’ freedom in nature."

Stevenson, K. T., Peterson, M. N., Bondell, H. D., Mertig, A. G., & Moore, S. E. (2013). Environmental, institutional, and demographic predictors of environmental literacy among middle school children. PloS one, 8(3). 1–11. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Building environmental literacy (EL) in children and adolescents is critical to meeting current and emerging environmental challenges worldwide. Although environmental education (EE) efforts have begun to address this need, empirical research holistically evaluating drivers of EL is critical. This study begins to fill this gap with an examination of school-wide EE programs among middle schools in North Carolina, including the use of published EE curricula and time outdoors while controlling for teacher education level and experience, student attributes (age, gender, and ethnicity), and school attributes (socio-economic status, student-teacher ratio, and locale). Our sample included an EE group selected from schools with registered school-wide EE programs, and a control group randomly selected from NC middle schools that were not registered as EE schools. Students were given an EL survey at the beginning and end of the spring 2012 semester. Use of published EE curricula, time outdoors, and having teachers with advanced degrees and mid-level teaching experience (between 3 and 5 years) were positively related with EL whereas minority status (Hispanic and black) was negatively related with EL. Results suggest that school-wide EE programs were not associated with improved EL, but the use of published EE curricula paired with time outdoors represents a strategy that may improve all key components of student EL. Further, investments in teacher development and efforts to maintain enthusiasm for EE among teachers with more than 5 years of experience may help to boost student EL levels. Middle school represents a pivotal time for influencing EL, as improvement was slower among older students. Differences in EL levels based on gender suggest boys and girls may possess complementary skills sets when approaching environmental issues. Our findings suggest ethnicity related disparities in EL levels may be mitigated by time spent in nature, especially among black and Hispanic students."

Szczytko, R., Stevenson, K., Peterson, M. N., Nietfeld, J., & Strnad, R. L. (2019). Development and validation of the environmental literacy instrument for adolescents. Environmental Education Research, 25(2), 193–210. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Environmental education (EE) practitioners struggle to consistently and rigorously evaluate their programs, particularly when little time is available for evaluation. Since environmental literacy (EL) is the goal of environmental education, a very short EL instrument – amenable to use when longer tests are not practical for practitioners – would address an important EE need. We describe the development and validation of the Environmental Literacy Instrument for Adolescents (ELI-A) that is short enough for use in field applications (i.e. 5–15 min) and measures four domains of environmental literacy (ecological knowledge, hope, cognitive skills, behaviour). Factor analysis, item response theory, and concurrent validity tests were used in the validation process. Structural equation modelling supported the fit between the ELI-A and prevailing EL frameworks. The results support a valid and reliable instrument that is short enough for practical use but comprehensive in measuring four primary components of EL. This instrument could help fulfill the call to evaluate EE programming in both formal and informal settings."

Other References

Bertling, J., & Rearden, K. (2018). Professional development on a sustainable shoestring: Propagating place-based art education in fertile soil. Discourse and Communication for Sustainable Education, 9(2), 5–20. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Research on the impact of place-based education (PBE), in which educational experiences are situated in the local environment (Smith, 2002), consistently suggests academic, social, and affective benefits across demographics. Traditionally, professional development supporting PBE has been designed to support large-scale initiatives. In this study, a bottom-up approach for expanding the reach of place-based art education (PBAE) was implemented with teachers (n=11) from a school district in the southeastern United States through two sequential professional development workshops. We examined the extent to which this minimal intervention impacted teachers understanding, buy-in, and creation of PBAE curricula. Results suggest that this organic approach, with teachers positioned as agents of change, can build upon pre-existing teacher interest and equip teachers to expand PBAE into their teaching contexts."

Buck, G. A., Cook, K., & Carter, I. W. (2016). Attempting to make place-based pedagogy on environmental sustainability integral to teaching and learning in middle school: An instrumental case study. Electronic Journal of Science Education, 20(2), 32–47.

From the Abstract:
"Local environmental topics can serve to motivate and empower students to change their behavior and take action for sustainable practices. In order to better support middle level teachers as they incorporate such topics into their professional practice, we sought to enhance our own understanding of their classroom-based experiences. In light of this, we conducted this study on a middle level teacher as she attempted to integrate place-based pedagogy on environmental sustainability into her science curriculum. The guiding questions of the study were: a) What student experiences emerged as a result of the teacher’s implementation of the curriculum?, and b) What beliefs, understandings and practices emerged for the teacher as a result of the experiences? Data sources included interviews, observations and written documents. The findings revealed that the teacher’s efforts to connect the instruction to a local issue of water quality led to student engagement and an eagerness on the part of the students to share what they did with others. Unfortunately, several aspects of the teacher’s efforts did not successfully lead to greater student understanding of content and multiple viewpoints on local issues. The results extend current understandings of how to support middle level teachers in the development, enactment, and refinement of place-based pedagogy on environmental sustainability."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Outdoor education, Place based education, Environmental education, (Middle school OR junior high)

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.