• Anne Nordstrom PhD

Idea Exchange


Evaluating Your Outdoor Education Program

All of us know that getting students out of the classroom works. Call it what you will (place-based education (PBE), environmental education, outdoor learning, meaningful watershed education experiences) this method teaches students to:

• Connect the dots,

• Actively learn about their place in communities --both human and ecological

• Deploy tools that allow them to understand and make tangible improvements

• Develop a fine-tuned understanding of the systems in which they live

All this provides them experiences that inspire, influence, and have a life-changing impact. As Lauren, a GOMI alumna writes elsewhere in this edition: “...GOMI has inspired me to be a lifelong activist. Through GOMI I recognized that environmental change does not come through watching documentaries, but rather through attending conservation commission meetings, educating the public, and performing citizen science.” How can you argue with that? Lauren, and numerous students along with her have developed a set of personal values that stand for social and environmental justice and are rooted in a scientific, experiential approach to problem-solving. They’ve learned to see the big picture and the intersecting, not insubstantial, role that humans play in stewarding the earth.

“So what?” (Why Evaluate?)

You understand and have seen first-hand that PBE makes a difference in the lives of students, but how do you communicate that knowledge to your community partners, your administrators, funders, and parents? When you want to convince others that this educational method is a worthy endeavor they should support, what case can you make, what tools do you have? How do you answer the question “so what?” when there are so many demands for so few resources and you want to prove what you know: i.e. students who have these experiences are more likely to go out and bring positive change to the world. As Lauren writes, “...and so I found myself protesting the North Dakota Access Pipeline, marching in the Climate March in Washington, D.C., and teaching school-age children about climate change”.

Evaluation research is uniquely positioned to answer two questions: “How is it going?” and “What good did it do?” The answer to these can and should be used to:

• Justify funding.

• Advocate program continuation.

• Judge aspects of the program that are most or least effective.

• Make mid-course adjustments.

What evaluation cannot do is everything at once (just like the rest of us). Evaluators must frame the evaluation according to what is relevant to the program's goals and objectives and:

• Develop relevant questions.

• Choose appropriate methods.

• Communicate findings, promptly, to people who can best use them.

Evaluation vs. Educational Assessment

Evaluation, as classically defined, is a systematic method for obtaining and assessing information about human activity that can be used by planners, implementers, funders, participants, policy-makers, and other stakeholders to make decisions about the effe