Science Lives: using nature to grow an understanding of science

Dr Sandra Austin, lecturer in social, environmental and scientific education at the Marino Institute of Education, Dublin

You are a big believer in using school gardens to help children learn about science. Why?

I see school gardens as connective spaces that allow you to see a bigger picture. You can experience the beauty as a whole and then find interesting things like how plants smell or look, and you can open up pieces of fruit and see the seeds. Learning outdoors like that offers really important direct experience of nature rather than just reading about it in class.

What work have you been doing with school gardens?

There has been quite a bit of research into school gardens in the UK, where they are often seen as a way to reconnect children and nature, and in the US, where they tend to be used to teach children about food and nutrition. But there has been very little empirical research about school gardens in Ireland. What my research has found is that primary school teachers here value the inclusivity of school gardens – every child can benefit and achieve success in a way that they may not be able to do in the classroom.


Is it enough just to have a school garden or go on nature walks with classes?

I think you need more. It’s really important to tie what the children see outdoors into material in the classroom, and that marrying of the direct experience with classroom resources tends to be a forgotten bit of the puzzle. For the past three years I have worked on a European Erasmus Plus project called TEALEAF to encourage teachers and children to develop digital games about ecology and biodiversity for the classroom. That project is just finishing up, and we have had researchers from five countries working with teachers across Europe to bring the learning back into the classroom in an engaging way.

How did you develop an interest in using plants to boost scientific understanding?

I originally studied microbiology at Trinity College Dublin, and I did my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania on the biochemical pathways affected by vascular disease. After a few years of being a post-doc I realised I wanted to do something different and I went to study horticulture at the National Botanic Gardens. Since then I have worked with the Eden Project in the UK and with OPEN, where I helped lone parents to develop FETAC level-5 horticulture skills for employment. Then I became part of the science education team at St Pat's in Dublin City University and now I am at Marino. I love teaching, and as a scientist I can bring a different perspective to teacher education. I think it's hugely important to inspire the next generation of teachers to be confident teaching science.

What advice would you give to boost outdoor learning for children during holidays or outside school hours?

I love running workshops with kids where we “charm” worms out of the soil and make teas with herbs, but in general I would say make sure children get opportunities to play and explore in natural environments outdoors. Kids love to play with devices and technology, but that doesn’t mean nature isn’t also a source of wonder to them. And if a child finds something interesting or asks a question you can’t answer, then get online and look it up. That way you can discover more about it together.

Connect with Dr Sandra Austin on Twitter at @SESMarinoIE

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation