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Inside the Outdoors: Orange County Department of Education


Cover 12.3.15

Orange County Department of Education

On the bluffs of Orange County’s Upper Newport Bay, one of the finest bird-watching sites in North America, students use binoculars to observe the characteristics of birds and identify the adaptations that help them survive.

Searching the marshes, mudflats and open waters of the estuary below, other students identify organisms in the wetland and discuss why animals at the top of the food chain experience greater impacts from pollution.

These kids are among the 85,000 who participate each year in Inside the Outdoors (ITO), a program that provides environmental education through field trips and a Traveling Scientist program that brings hands-on activities to the classroom.

Established by the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) in 1974, ITO helps students interact with the natural world in real-life settings.

“When lessons are hands-on and alive, students’ minds just soak in the knowledge,” said Orange County Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares. “It flips a switch for students. They become excited to learn, and the teachers are excited because they can do things that normally can’t happen in the classroom.”

ITO currently has 15 field trip sites, ranging from wetlands to wilderness, and 19 Traveling Scientist programs.

For example, “Creature Feature” introduces pre-schoolers to animal adaptations through story-telling. ITO staff members bring live animals including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and arthropods to the classroom to illustrate the concepts.

For the field trips, students break up into groups of about 18-20, with each group supervised by an ITO staff member, said Operations Manager Stephanie Smith.

Each group rotates through a variety of stations for hands-on activities. “Staff have strict content outlines so we know they are being consistent in how they teach,” Smith said. ITO activities are aligned with California’s science and social science 1

“We all know that learning should be fun and motivational. When students find learning boring, the onus is on the adults to change that.”


The field trips “aren’t just a recreational opportunity for kids to let off steam,” Mijares said. “These programs are very rigorous. The lessons are carefully planned and very intentional. This is where you really see the concepts kids are learning come alive.”

At the high school level, a program called “Zero Waste” explores the life cycle of trash. In addition to teaching scientific concepts, programs such as Zero Waste raise awareness and inspire students to take action through a service-learning component.

ITO Development Director Lori Kiesser said students participating in Zero Waste have created recycling programs at their schools, awareness campaigns to reduce waste on campus at lunch, and school gardens and composting programs.

Kiesser said teachers love Inside the Outdoors, because “it’s hard to bring science to life while sitting in a classroom. It’s especially tough for lower income kids to see what’s outside of their neighborhoods. We open up their horizons. Teaching and learning don’t just happen in a classroom. There are all kinds of different ways to learn.”

One student in particular illustrated this for Mijares when he was superintendent of Santa Ana Unified School District. “Gloria Montiel and her family came to this country from Mexico with very little means, speaking only Spanish and subsisting day to day. Despite these challenges Gloria worked hard, and school became a driving force that inspired her,” he said. Gloria went on to graduate from Harvard on a full scholarship.

“I think that Inside the Outdoors was one of the turning points that helped to galvanize her education,” Mijares said. “She used the barriers she faced as stepping stones to enable her success. As she gained confidence, her drive intensified.”

Montiel, who earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Harvard, has returned to Santa Ana and works to provide access to health care to low-income Latinos.

“We know that being engaged in science is going to help students whether or not they choose to pursue a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career,” Smith said. “Being science literate is going to help them be more informed citizens.”

Still, encouraging STEM careers is a goal for Mijares. He said that while a number of students across the nation start college as STEM majors, they end up changing majors fairly quickly. “This has a lot to do with how their K-12 background prepared them,” he said.

“We all know that learning should be fun and motivational. When students find learning boring, the onus is on the adults to change that,” he said.

Inside the Outdoors will increase the number of students it serves by 15,000 this year, when Anaheim City School District uses LCAP funding to allow every student in pre-K through grade six to participate.

A foundation supporting Inside the Outdoors raises about $1 million a year from private and corporate sources as well as from government agencies that support environmental education, according to Smith. This allows the program to provide scholarships and grants to offset the costs to students and schools.

For more information:

Orange County Department of Education has information about Inside the Outdoors, including field trip sights, programs by grade level, and the ITO Foundation.
The Children and Nature Network explains why learning outside the classroom is valuable for students learning science.
An article in Huffington Post details the benefits of hands-on learning in STEM, and includes links to supporting research.
American Trails features a review of one outdoors enthusiast’s experiences with Inside the Outdoors.

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