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Engaging Students with Summer Learning Activities: Data Collection in the Field

Looking for ideas to take learning outside this summer? Whether you’re involved in education through schools, museums, non-profits, or community programs, engaging learners of all ages in natural settings offers immense benefits, from K–12 through college. Plus, it’s fun! Not just for students, but for educators and program leaders, too. You’ll get to see how students interact with each other in a different location, expose them to authentic natural phenomena, and encourage their scientific curiosity in a grounded, real-world context. Whether you’re planning a summer field trip or exploring nearby natural areas with a scientific eye, here are some ideas and tips to get you started with data collection in the field.

Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Research shows that learning outdoors can significantly enhance the educational experience for both students and educators alike. Here’s how:

Students use Go Direct® Weather and LabQuest® 3 to collect weather data

Start with Simple Outdoor Activities

Getting students outside of the classroom is the first step. It doesn’t have to start with data collection—you can lead your students on simple walks where you explore local features, discuss natural phenomena in current events, highlight different occupations in STEM, and encourage open dialogue about their observations, curiosities, and questions.

You can then start turning your students’ observations into small research projects or adapt typical lab-based lessons into fieldwork. Depending on your class and curriculum, you can provide different levels of scaffolding—from conducting specific experiments based on student-inspired questions to letting them decide and explore testable ideas with sensors. For example, some students might wonder what the temperature is at the top of a tree. That might not be easily testable, but you could look at the ground around the tree and look at temperature variations there.

Investigate Light and Temperature Outdoors: Three Model Experiments

These three phenomena-based investigations are easily adaptable to summer learning and outdoor settings. We recommend using these as models to explore the outdoors with your students, in order from most to least structured. 

  1. Schoolyard Study
    Most structured activity for students. 

Although it’s in our middle school lab book, this structured, outdoor activity is actually great for all levels! You can discuss temperature and light variations with middle schoolers, high schoolers, and even college students—it’s just a matter of scaling some of the terminology and depth to the appropriate level. For example, you could discuss microclimates with high school or college students, but might omit that topic with middle schoolers.

In this experiment, students investigate their campus or outdoor area by collecting light and temperature data along a transect, taking samples at various locations and distances from the ground, and noting degrees of shade or sun. You can repeat this experiment multiple times throughout the summer, as different weather conditions will produce new data.

  1. Reflection and Absorption of Light
    Offers a combination of structure and student-led exploration for students. 

Would you feel cooler wearing a light- or dark-colored shirt on a hot summer day? Instead of answering this question in a lab setting using a lamp and different color paper, your students can take this question directly to the source by examining objects in the summer sun. Following the same guidelines in the lab book, students use temperature probes and light sensors to investigate items they find in the outdoors, such as stones, leaves, grass, astroturf, concrete, forest floor, or other samples. 

Discuss the relationship between light reflection and surface temperature with your students and help them investigate and explain differences they observe in different samples and locations. This is a great opportunity to connect their observations to other concepts like energy conservation and urban design—for example, how can their campus design choices, like paint color or density of tree shade, impact energy consumption on air conditioning or heating?

  1. Studying Microclimates: Urban Heat Islands
    Most student-led and open-ended activity for students. 

For a more open-ended and exploratory activity, you can adapt this culminating project from our Climate and Meteorology Experiments lab book that involves studying microclimates. Students plan and carry out their own investigations by choosing two unique outdoor locations. They compare the weather at these spots with the climate conditions in their area and make extrapolations from their data about the overall climate of the region.

This activity is written for the Go Direct® Weather System, the Go Direct Light and Color Sensor, and the Go Direct Surface Temperature Sensor, but you can adapt the investigations based on sensors you already have in your lab.

Encourage Student-Led Investigations with Sensors

Using model investigations from lab books can provide specific learning objectives and structure. But you don’t necessarily need them to get out in the field! Another strategy is to invite students to ask questions and define problems based on the sensors you already have. Go out and test what they find in the world around them—let students drive the questions and inquiry.

This approach is flexible and based on the equipment you already have and can scale to your course or student level. For example, an on-level course might not do well without enough structure, so you can guide them to specifically look at soil temperature at different locations on campus, while more advanced students can have more open-ended exploration. You can organize these kinds of open-ended outdoor activities after covering specific concepts in class. Encourage students to be curious and creative as they make connections between classroom topics and what they observe outside.

Explore Outdoor Phenomena with Vernier Sensors

  • Temperature: Measure air, soil, or surface temperature of rocks, leaves, trees, asphalt, grass, concrete, etc.
  • Humidity: Compare humidity of different microclimates in your region.
  • Light & UV: Measure light reflection of different outdoor and natural surfaces or explore which fabrics best protect against UV light from the sun.
  • Carbon Dioxide: Investigate CO2 levels in different microclimates or explore soil respiration.
  • Soil Moisture: Explore the moisture levels of soil in different areas—compare areas near and far from traffic or parking lots.
  • pH: Explore pH of different soil samples or of local wetlands and water sources.
  • Conductivity: Explore conductivity of different soil samples or of local wetlands and water sources. 
  • Dissolved Oxygen: Investigate dissolved oxygen levels in local wetlands or water sources. 
  • Weather: Measure ambient temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind chill, dew point, barometric pressure, and more with one sensor.
Vernier biology and environmental science expert, Colleen McDaniel, investigates water quality at a local lake using the Go Direct Dissolved Oxygen Probe, Go Direct Conductivity Probe, and Go Direct pH Sensor.

Get the Fastest Temperature Data: Any temperature sensor can be used in these environmental investigations, but we strongly recommend the Go Direct Surface Temperature Sensor. This sensor has an exposed thermistor with an extremely rapid response time, making it much easier and faster to get real-time air and water temperature data.

Create a Simulated Water Source: Not all schools or programs have access to natural water sources like ponds, wetlands, or rivers. For water quality testing activities, try creating your own pond using a kiddie pool filled with water and rocks. Place it in different areas to observe the wildlife it attracts. Over time, students can perform water quality tests as it is exposed to the environment. To expedite the process, add algae or spinach leaves to simulate organic matter, tea to change the color and pH, and Alka-Seltzer® tablets to alter the conductivity.

Leverage Wireless Technology for Outdoors: Our mobile and wireless technology makes it much easier to facilitate outdoor investigations without the hassle of laptops or wires! LabQuest® interfaces are wireless and mobile, and our Go Direct line of sensors can connect via Bluetooth® wireless technology to students’ personal devices, including mobile phones or iPad® tablets.

Are you teaching this summer and excited about taking students outdoors? Share your favorite activities with us! Reach out to us at or 888-837-6437, or tag us on social!

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