Teacher explores students’ interactions with nature

By Virginia Ross

The East Palestine teacher will present some of her findings next week at a conference in Connecticut.

EAST PALESTINE — High school science teacher Lisa Bircher said she was a bit surprised when she had to identify an oak tree for one of her pupils.

Bircher, who has been teaching in the East Palestine School District since 1993, said she would have expected the adolescents in her class to be able to point out poison ivy, a maple tree and other things commonly seen outdoors.

“Many people believe kids today just don’t have the experience with the outdoors that kids in past years have had,” Bircher said. “My question is whether that is actually true, and if so, why and what are the consequences of this?”

Bircher, who is a doctoral candidate at Kent State University, set out to find some answers. She set her sights on exploring how changes in society have affected adolescents’ abilities to interact with nature. She is scheduled to present some of her findings during the Association for Science Teacher Education conference Jan. 8-10 in Hartford, Conn.

Much of her presentation is based on research conducted the summer of 2007 at F.T. Stone Laboratories, a biological field site of Ohio State University near Put-in-Bay. During a one-week session there she worked with a group of adolescents interested in becoming science educators. The session included three days of field trips for collecting data on aquatic biology from streams, ponds and Lake Erie.

She said many people, including educators and parents, have speculated that kids today have a deficit when it comes to their knowledge of nature and the outdoors. Further speculation explores reasons for this lack of knowledge, such as the computer age we live in and parents’ fears that children could be abducted or get hurt outside while exploring their surroundings, she said. “We come up with many reasons or explanations, but my question is whether there’s evidence to support those reasons,” Bircher said.

She said she was startled when she realized the adolescents were hesitant to explore nature and be outdoors during her time at OSU. She said one girl told her the session would have been more useful if the students were dissecting specimens that already had been caught.

“That really turned me off and concerned me,” Bircher said. “She didn’t want to be outside gathering her own specimens. In actuality, that’s a big part of science and studying nature.”

Bircher said the experience made her look more closely at Nature Deficit Disorder, a theory proposed in 2005 by Richard Louv, who wrote the book “Last Child in the Woods.” Bircher said Louv explains that Nature Deficit Disorder is not a medical condition but the result of humans’ being cut off from the natural environment. She said consequences of this could include loss of senses and increased physical and emotional problems such as depression, Attention Deficit Disorder and obesity as well as increasing crime rates.

Bircher said she has approached her research skeptical about Nature Deficit Disorder and is continuing to explore this theory and its relation to her students.

She said she also is interested in how changing societal issues affect teenagers and is hoping teachers can use her research as a tool to make learning about science more effective, realistic and interesting for students.

“I want to know what’s really going on here, if there is a lack of knowledge or interest in nature, and if that’s the case, how we, as teachers and educators, can work to improve this, correct it and encourage kids to want to explore their surroundings. It’s OK to have an idea or opinion, but these need to be backed up with research, data, numbers and evidence to support them.”

Bircher completed her master’s degree in natural resources in 2002 at OSU and is in her third year pursuing a doctoral degree at Kent State University.

She said she has attended the Science Education Council of Ohio conferences several times, but has never before had an opportunity to make a presentation at a national-level conference

“This is an honor and a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “I am planning to continue my studies and using what I’ve learned to better connect with my students, and I’m hoping to get a better understanding of where they’re at, where they’re coming from and what can be done to help them with their studies and with their learning process. That’s what it’s all about in the end, benefiting the students and helping them in their learning experiences.”

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