facilitating outdoor wonders and learning for all educators


Project OWL (Outdoor Wonders and Learning) is a program of The North Carolina Arboretum, an affiliate institution of the University of North Carolina System, and was funded by a grant by Duke Energy in its pilot year, 2016-2017. During this first year, the goal was to help North Carolina teachers utilize outdoor spaces for delivering high-quality science education opportunities for students in grades K-5. In particular, Project OWL focused on engaging those who are new to teaching, less familiar with the content included within N.C. Essential Standards, and have little experience using outdoor learning as a method of teaching standardized curriculum. 

As it has grown, Project OWL is now serving practicing classroom teachers, pre-service teachers, and non-formal educators in the state of North Carolina. The 6-hour curriculum workshop has recently been added to the list of approved Criteria 1 workshops for the North Carolina Environmental Education Certification program. Project OWL has also been used in Science Methods courses for Elementary Education students at Western Carolina University, Recreation Management students at Appalachian State University, and has plans to continue connecting with similar programs taught at universities in the UNC System.

Project OWL promotes science education for elementary students by promoting outdoor lessons that are carefully aligned with the Essential Standards set by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The objectives of Project OWL include:

  1. Increase educators’ understanding of the science content included in the NC Essential Standards.

  2. Equip educators with activities that encourage inquiry-based, multidisciplinary instruction.

  3. Provide resources on how to encourage and facilitate science education and interest in science.

  4. Encourage new teachers to become more familiar, comfortable and effective in leading outdoor lessons. 


Professional Development

Arboretum education staff provide curriculum workshops at the Arboretum and across the state. Workshops include instruction on best practices in leading outdoor lessons while strengthening their understanding of K--5 science concepts. Each workshop demonstrates how activities can be done in typical schoolyards or outdoor learning spaces. Participants also work on developing or adapting a current lesson into a 5E Instructional Model, bridging content and inquiry-based learning.  


Online Curriculum Guide

Educators at the North Carolina Arboretum have developed an online curriculum guide that has been vetted by current North Carolina school teachers. This guide serves to link K-5 N.C. Essential Standards of science education with outdoor activities, while also providing additional interdisciplinary activities to supplement the science curriculum and connect student learning across subjects.  


Where to learn outside

In the pilot year, each participating school received an Outdoor Study Area within the schoolyard. Each study area includes a minimum of one tree that demonstrates seasonal characteristics, a native wildflower garden, a bird feeding station and a weather station. The site has been recognized as a “ecoEXPLORE Hotspot,” a designation that aligns with another initiative of The North Carolina Arboretum, ecoEXPLORE, wherein students share wildlife observations as they earn prizes, badges and meet STEM professionals.

Now, Project OWL staff are working to connect teachers and educators with resources, organizations, and professionals in their areas who can help evaluate their outdoor spaces and show them the potential. Outdoor Wonders and Learning can take place anywhere!