A Garden in Bloom: Reflecting on One Year of the Outdoor Nature Lab

August 4, 2023

In June 2022, the Robert and Elizabeth Karplus Outdoor Nature Lab opened for the first time, offering visitors a new way to explore and engage with nature and life sciences at The Lawrence. The Outdoor Nature Lab was the first new addition to the science center in nearly two decades. In the year since it opened, thousands of visitors have explored nature in our backyard, searching for birds, learning about pollinators, and so much more. This week we’re looking back at what’s changed and what we’ve learned together, and looking forward to new experiences and ways to discover the wonders of the outdoors in the future.

The Outdoor Nature Lab is the culmination of a longtime dream of our researchers and educators for a dedicated space for outdoor learning on site at the science center. The Lawrence has supported environmental education since our earliest days. In the 1970s, we developed the very first high-quality instructional materials for use in outdoor science, which we called Outdoor Biological Instructional Strategies (OBIS). Since 2011, our BEETLES Project has been dedicated to improving outdoor science education and environmental learning nationwide. With the opening of the Outdoor Nature Lab, we finally have our own space to develop and share new outdoor learning experiences with visitors, school groups, and other educators.

The exhibition is named in honor of Robert and Elizabeth Karplus, two educators and scientists whose work had a seminal impact on the work carried out by The Lawrence. Elizabeth Karplus dedicated her professional life to teaching and learning, including running a radiochemistry laboratory and teaching at Mills College. Professor Robert Karplus was a theoretical physicist and a pioneer in science education. Their passion for science and the outdoors continues to serve as an inspiration for the Outdoor Nature Lab and The Lawrence as a whole.

Major support for the Robert and Elizabeth Karplus Outdoor Nature Lab is provided by Barbara Karplus and Rodney Womer. Additional meaningful support is provided by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Shimizu Family in memory of Lakas Shimizu, Helzel Family Foundation, William Knox Holt Foundation, Brian Metcalf, and many more donors.

“We are very grateful for all who have been involved in creating this space with us–from our amazing team of learning designers, architects, engineers, builders and artists to our community partners to our donors who made the ONL possible and infused it with their love of outdoor learning,” said Rena Dorph, Ph.D., Executive Director of The Lawrence.

If you haven’t visited the Outdoor Nature Lab since last summer, you’d certainly notice a few changes. The plentiful rain of last winter helped our native plants grow quickly, turning what was a budding garden into a full-fledged habitat. With the more established plants and flowers came a whole host of birds, pollinators, and other critters.

“We’ve seen a resurgence of biodiversity in and around the area,” said Chris Ziska, Outdoor Nature Lab Program Lead. “Because of the growth of the plants, we’ve seen different types of fungus, more insects, more lizards, and a lot more pollinators. As you walk along the nature path any given day, you can just hear scurrying under the bushes on either side, which is really cool.”

Throughout its first year, the Outdoor Nature Lab has played host to a variety of engaging activities. Visitors have explored everything the outdoor exhibition has to offer at their own pace using our Self-guided Scavenger Hunt. Making observations about flora and fauna is an important part of exploring nature. To hone those observational skills, young scientists created nature journals with drawings and notes about lizards, butterflies, flowers, and more. Binoculars, spotting scopes, and magnifying glasses have been a particular favorite for our visitors, allowing them to experience nature up close and personal.

These enthralling activities wouldn’t have been possible without our talented team of student staff and volunteers. On any given day you can find several facilitators answering questions, showing guests how to use binoculars and other tools, and engaging young scientists’ curiosity. Outdoor Nature Lab staff have expressed they enjoy the opportunity to engage in open-ended exploration and conversation with our visitors and share their passion for the outdoors.

“The main thing we’ve learned in the past year is there isn’t any one correct way to engage with nature and to develop a relationship with the outdoors,” said Chris Ziska. “Our guests bring a variety of different backgrounds when they visit the Outdoor Nature Lab. The way our activities are structured allows us to pivot and introduce new ideas and concepts depending on the guests’ level of experience with nature.”

Looking forward, Chris and his team are taking what they’ve learned in the Outdoor Nature Lab’s first year and developing new activities and experiences for visitors to engage with nature. This summer, they piloted a new Nature Photography activity that encourages nature explorers to search for and photograph particular flora and fauna, then share and discuss their images with our facilitators. The team is developing a guide for identifying our array of native plants to complement an existing bird identification guide. There have also been discussions around bringing Outdoor Nature Lab-inspired programs to schools and community centers in collaboration with The Lawrence On-The-Go team.

In addition to new facilitated activities, there are plans to enhance the space itself and offer visitors a chance to explore nature through a different cultural lens. The Lawrence is partnering with mak-’amham/Cafe Ohlone, an Ohlone cultural organization, on several projects to incorporate indigenous perspectives into the exhibition. New signage will be installed discussing how various plants are used in Ohlone traditions and how to pronounce the names of native flora in the indigenous language Chochenyo. Earlier this year, we announced a new grant-funded project to co-develop an augmented reality exhibit with Ohlone youth, exploring indigenous science and the continuity, richness, and relevance of Ohlone knowledge. Stay tuned for more details about these and other future projects.

“It has been our privilege to share and develop these new experiences with our visitors,” said Rena Dorph. “We look forward to many more years of exploration, investigation, discovery, and play in The Robert and Elizabeth Karplus Outdoor Nature Lab!”

We’ve been thrilled to share this unique journey of discovery and outdoor learning with our members and visitors. The experience of exploring nature in our backyard has only gotten better throughout this first year, and will continue to improve as we hone our program and enhance the exhibit space through new projects and partnerships. We can’t wait to see what happens next as we watch our garden continue to grow together. You can make a donation to support and maintain the Outdoor Nature Lab for all future scientists.

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