Discover Nature Schools

By Regina Knauer | July 21, 2010
From Missouri Conservationist: Aug 2010

What has come over Missouri students? They’re asking teachers to do science. They’re begging teachers to take them outside so they can take air temperature, watch birds and record observations. They want their parents to see their science books. They want to take their science notebooks home to record what they see in their own backyards. They’re acting like scientists—without being told! What’s happening?

It’s simple—nearly 400 middle and elementary school teachers have adopted the Discover Nature Schools instructional units in their science classes, and the program is proving to be science and conservation education at its best. Bottom line: the more students equate the outdoors with learning, the more comfortable they become with outdoor environments and with recording outdoor experiences. With their hands directly on the natural world, kids begin to think, ask questions, record data and draw conclusions—just like scientists.

Getting Started

Teachers, to launch a Discover Nature Schools program in your class contact your local education consultant. He or she can introduce you to the units, register you for training and help you get started.

Instructional Units

  • Conserving Missouri's Aquatic Ecosystems (grades 6 - 8)
  • Nature Unleashed - The Untamed World of Missouri Ponds, Forests and Prairies (grades 3 - 5)
  • Nature Unbound (grades 9 - 12) in pilot fall 2010
  • Instructional unit for K - 2 coming soon!

Contact information and complete units and grant guidelines are available on the MDC website at Or, call 573-751-4115 for more information.

Educator Supported

Teachers love the program, too. Discover Nature Schools units slip in easily rather than add to what teachers must cover in a year. The activities keep their students engaged and excited from beginning to end. The concepts are aligned closely with the requirements for state standards, grade-level (and course-level) expectations and testing. Grants provide funding for classroom materials and reimbursement for bus transportation to field experiences where students can apply what they’ve learned.

One teacher said she learned as much as the students and that the fourth-grade unit was the beginning of naturalist learning for them. “They loved using the science tools: thermometers, magnifiers, binoculars, field guides and science notebooks. They wanted to learn more.” Another described how it instilled a sense of stewardship in the students—they began picking up trash each time they went outside.

Outdoor exploration, self-discovery and learning about nature while experiencing it are at the heart of the Discover Nature Schools units. Over 20,000 Missouri students have already been involved. The ultimate goal of the program is to reach every student in every school. Imagine over one million kids in Missouri public and private schools taking advantage of fun, engaging conservation education. Imagine them able to experience hands-on learning in nature close to home throughout their entire school career.

State and National Importance

Large movements are afoot to reconnect children with nature and the outdoors. President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama recently unveiled the “Let’s Move Outside” initiative. Even Governor Jay Nixon’s Children in Nature Proclamation recognizes the Discover Nature Schools program as a means not only to “strengthen children’s connection to nature and enhance their education about the environment” but also to satisfy part of the criteria for his and first lady Georganne Nixon’s Children in Nature Community Challenge.

Inside the Outside Program

Each Discover Nature Schools unit provides colorful and engaging books for students. Teachers use the lesson plans provided to guide their students through hands-on outdoor activities that bring the science concepts alive. Units encourage the use of science notebooks. Students measure and record specific details about the weather, but they also make sketches and describe personal observations and feelings. A Silex R-1 fourth-grader’s science notebook entry illustrates how such activities encourage the flow of literacy from science to language arts: “Moss on broken tree feels like velvet. …”

So far, two of the five units are available: the middle school aquatic unit, Conserving Missouri’s Aquatic Ecosystems, and the elementary school unit, Nature Unleashed—The Untamed World of Missouri Ponds, Forests and Prairies. Free student books and teacher guides are available for all Discover Nature Schools units. Nature Unleashed students also receive science notebooks.

This fall, Nature Unbound—The Impact of Ecology on Missouri and the World will be offered as a pilot program for use by high school biology, ecology and environmental science teachers. A kindergarten through second-grade unit is currently in production, and the pilot is scheduled for fall 2011. An early childhood unit will be piloted the following fall.

Real-World Science

Discover Nature Schools field experiences are field trips with a twist. They are designed to be perfect opportunities for kids to take what they learned while exploring their schoolyard “ecosystems” and apply it to new, unfamiliar natural areas. Once they have completed the Nature Unleashed unit, fourth-graders exit the school bus armed with science notebooks, thermometers, binoculars and magnifiers ready to enter a world of exploration, observation and notebooking. Students know that they will be responsible for organizing and reporting on the data gathered during their field experience.

Sixth-graders who have completed the aquatic unit, Conserving Missouri’s Aquatic Ecosystems, can grab their kick nets, magnifiers, ice cube trays and fishing poles and take turns testing the dissolved oxygen and nitrate levels of an area’s pond or stream, sampling the aquatic insect life in that body of water and fishing.

Students come away eager for learning, with an understanding of scientific concepts and an awakening lifelong love of angling.

Parents send their children off to school and hope they gain knowledge. When their children come home excited about what they learned and want to keep learning on their own, that’s a bonus. What better way to learn about the natural world than to be immersed within it? What more could we wish for our children than genuine, outdoor “aha!” moments? What could be better than written words in science books coming to life in their hands? The Discover Nature Schools program empowers students to make and carry those connections with them into adulthood.

Embrace The Elements

Safety and proper clothing are always of primary concern. However, our children need to spend time outside exploring and experiencing plants and wildlife in all kinds of weather. To take students outdoors during a soft, fine rain is to open their senses in new and unexpected ways. To take them outside after a snowstorm is to open their eyes to wildlife highways normally hidden in grass or on concrete. To take them into nature is to help them answer questions, offer theories and make deeper connections.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler