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PAST & KIPP Columbus: A Journey of Outdoor Experiential Learning

By Jessa Goldner

As part of an on-going partnership with KIPP Columbus, a community school located in Columbus, OH, the PAST Student Programs team was excited to lead three groups of middle school students as they explored their school’s own backyard over a three week span in late September 2020. The students learned about Central Ohio’s habitats and the adaptations that insects have in order to live in that particular environment. The students were shown “bug boxes” that hold insects previously collected from a PAST program on Kelley’s Island in order to have an up close experience with insects that are found in Ohio. This resource gave accessibility to students who were not comfortable with studying live bugs in nature as well as to students who have never been given the opportunity to see these insects up close. The students welcomed observing these insects and were eager to learn more about them. After choosing an insect of interest, each student was challenged to build a home that incorporated what their insect needed in order to survive. Once again we were overwhelmed with the creativity and excitement that these students brought to their project. 

Although we only had four days with each group, every student was able to have a hands-on educational experience. Together students sharpened their investigative skills and were able to put their observations into words more easily. By taking our activities outside, the students were collecting, creating, and synthesizing real world data while they built their insect homes. They were excited to go outside each day and when students find meaning and deeper connections in their education, they are more likely to continue on a path of lifelong learning. Outdoor experiential learning is something that I am passionate about bringing to K-12 education and I am energized to help the PAST Foundation incorporate this  into their programs. 

“It is rough to touch and spherical in shape.” 

These were the first words that came out of Jamie when he gained enough courage to place his hand inside of our Mystery Box. The Mystery Box is designed to allow students to feel but not see an object that is placed inside. After reaching in, the students used their sense of touch to describe to the rest of the class what was inside. During our three weeks at KIPP Columbus, students had to use their senses and creativity, not just with the Mystery Box, but with all activities to solve nature mysteries. 

“There are grooves that cover the outside. It is the size of a golf ball. There is a section that dips in. Almost like there is a bite taken out of it.”

KIPP Columbus sits on 125 acres of land that includes fields, ponds, coniferous and hardwood trees along with a section of Alum Creek. All of this outdoor space is available and ready for students to explore. Because of this, I was not surprised when we found a nature mystery the first day that we went adventuring outside. Some of the students went out ahead of me and my colleague Ashley. With all this open outdoor space it was no surprise that they began running with this new found freedom. Just before they reached the distance where I would call them back in, two of the students stopped dead in their tracks. They were looking down into the tall grass just feet away from the freshly mowed path. The students yelled, “Why is there foam out here?” “Why would someone litter foam out here?” By the time Ashley and I had caught up to them, our students had found more of the mysterious foam. As I approached I noticed that the foam was in a round shape, sizing bigger than basketballs. Another student realized that there was a third one and as we began to look around we realized that we were surrounded by them. I began asking students to describe what they noticed about these white globes. I wanted them to use their senses to describe what they were seeing and feeling, just like when we did the mystery box. “They have a smooth thin outer layer, but they smoosh in when I push on it,” one student observed. After breaking one of them apart a student yells with excitement “It’s a mushroom!” 

“There is a small point at one end of the round object”

Nature Mysteries were all around us for those three weeks. They happened when we were outside and they happened in the Mystery Box. Were you able to guess what was in the box the day Jamie put his hand in? It was a black walnut seed!

Although our students didn’t know the exact name of the object, they knew that it was a nut that had fallen from a tree. It is important to remind ourselves that sometimes knowing the answer isn’t always the sign of success, but rather the critical thinking skills and observation process that proves learning. These students brought their curiosity, creativity, and excitement to us each day and it was an honor to explore and learn alongside them.


About the Author

Jessa Goldner is a Student Programs Instructor with the PAST Foundation.

Jessa has dedicated her post college career to National Service and spent the past three years engaging with and assisting diverse communities throughout the country. This work was inspired by her time at The Ohio State University.

Jessa found a love for informal education while working at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont as a Community Engagement Coordinator. In this role she gained experience in leading hands-on routines of learning and the importance the outdoors play in an individual’s health and well being.

Jessa is passionate about utilizing the natural world as a learning laboratory and as a place to expand on social and emotional competencies in order to create more authentic leaders. She looks forward to bringing these routines to the students in the Innovators Club and working to bring more environmental and natural history programs to PAST programming.


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