The Outdoor Classroom — pilot Stanford biology class always meets outside

Tad Fukami teaches a unique biology class he helped create at Stanford. Students have all their classes outdoors. (Photo: Owen Liu)

At Stanford University this spring, one lucky group got to live out a dream of students everywhere – regularly having class outside.

“We are testing out a new way of teaching how to do biological research,” said Tadashi “Tad” Fukami, a young ecology professor at Stanford.  He has collaborated with the biology department to create a new twist on a classic undergraduate class: the biology lab.

The class is a core experimental laboratory that biology and pre-medical students are required to take. Fukami’s creation is an alternative, pilot section of the class that makes nature herself into a laboratory.

Instead of donning lab coats and goggles, students in this class grab clipboards and hiking boots and head out into the field. Their study site? Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Stanford’s own 1,200-acre nature reserve and biological field station in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The study system revolves around the ecology of yeast communities that grow naturally in the nectar of a local plant, the sticky monkey-flower, or Mimulus aurantiacusMimulus is a plant native to California that produces beautiful orange flowers in the springtime.  Fukami and the students use a vast array of tools and techniques to ask a range of questions about the plants, the creatures that eat it and those that spread its pollen, and other factors that affect nectar yeast communities.

One Thursday afternoon this spring, lab partners Pooja Bakhai and Leah Stork meticulously counted flowers in the beautiful spring sunshine as they kept an eye out for caterpillars munching on the leaves of their Mimulus plants.

“It’s so nice to just get outside, do your own thing, and everyone does their own research question,” Bakhai said. “It’s just cool.”

The class, seeded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, has put an emphasis on inquiry-based learning, asking students to investigate their own research questions and formulate their own hypotheses.  The idea is that by giving students the opportunity to be in charge of their own research, those students will be more engaged in the material and ultimately learn more than they would by following a “cooking recipe,” as Fukami calls more traditional scripted lab exercises.

Sticky monkey flower, Mimulus aurantiacus, is a native California plant and the focus of the class research. (Photo: Owen Liu)

Using materials ranging from the simple-but-handy pen and notebook to state-of-the-art cameras and temperature monitors, teams of two students form a question and design an experiment together that they investigate over the length of the 10-week Stanford academic quarter.  And the cherry on top is that the data that the students gather works seamlessly into Fukami’s own research on the community ecology of yeast communities.

In the field, students get a taste of what real ecological research involves.  “Gathering real data, outside, is a really valuable thing to learn,” Bakhai said.

Fukami stressed that in using inquiry-based learning, his number one goal is to get students to understand the “process of science.”

“We’re using this relationship between flowers and microbes and birds just as a case study,” Fukami said.  “We are going through all the things like how to frame scientific questions, how to test scientific hypotheses, what kind of data analysis we should be doing, and how to present results.  We are hoping that by coming here, to Jasper Ridge, we can have some fun doing ecological research, and use that as a good example of how science works.”

The students seem to be on board.

“This class really teaches you that if you’re not doing real research, you’re not really learning anything,” said Bakhai’s lab partner Leah Stork. “I think the idea is that you can see that if someone was interested in this, this how they would form their own research questions and hypotheses.”

“[Ecological research] is something that a lot of people don’t get any experience with,” added Bakhai.  Bakhai and Stork both stressed the opportunity to be outside and the one-on-one time with each other and the professor as other benefits of the class.

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