Since 2018, we have collaborated with Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools to integrate environmental education and outdoor learning into teachers’ practice at a local elementary school through the Northside Outdoor Wonder & Learning Initiative. We recognize that inquiry-based STEM education using the natural environment for context makes learning both rigorous and relevant for students.

The Northside OWL Initiative engages teachers in year-long professional development to help them develop and improve skills in teaching science outdoors using interdisciplinary, inquiry based instructional approaches. Tailored curriculum materials in the form of the six units below aligned with 3rd, 4th and 5th grade science curriculum provide opportunities to integrate content areas while learning in the schoolyard and nearby natural areas.

We continue to cultivate this community of practice through professional development to enhance implementation of outdoor-focused curriculum units and integration of the environment into other content areas.  


3rd Grade | Force & Motion on the Playground

In this unit, students learn about force and motion using hands-on activities on the playground and in the classroom. Students make observations, complete a math and science scavenger hunt, design and perform experiments, and plan improvements all using the structures on a variety of playgrounds.


3rd Grade | Plants

In this unit, students evaluate how plants survive in different environments through explorations of the soil in which they grow, the functions of their parts, and plant life cycles. Along with multiple outdoor investigations, students design experiments in which they grow plants from seeds and evaluate the impacts of environmental conditions on their plant’s growth.


4th Grade | Animal Adaptations

This unit examines how animals are suited to meet their particular habitat needs and survive in changing environments. Students investigate the habitats found around their school and the animals adapted to live there through observations, nature journaling activities, hands-on explorations, and physically involved activities.


4th Grade | Rocks & Minerals

In this unit, students learn about rocks and minerals as well as processes that shape the earth with the assistance of a pet rock that they collect. Through hands-on activities and outdoor explorations, students with examine the properties of rocks and minerals, the three types of rocks and the rock cycle, and how rocks and landforms change over time.


5th Grade | Ecosystems & Interdependence

In this unit, students learn how living organisms are interdependent with each other and the non-living components of an ecosystem, in part through investigations of their schoolyard and surrounding natural areas. The activities in this unit provide students with opportunities to develop skills such as observation, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.


5th Grade | Weather

This unit investigates the concept of weather, what factors influence weather, how the ocean affects weather, and how weather affects our lives. Students describe and explain many aspects of weather and the processes that impact it, including weather patterns, precipitation, wind, hurricanes, El Niño, La Niña, and climate change.


Funding for this project was provided by the Duke Energy Foundation and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

For more information, please contact Sarah Yelton, Environmental Education & Citizen Science Program Manager.
sarah.yelton@unc.edu | 919-966-0895