Better than you found it: A Nature-Based Learning Transformation

Better Than You Found It…

In his last address before he died, Robert Baden-Powell, a founder of the Scouting movement, said that we should “try to leave this world a little better than we found it.” After leading Laurel Mountain Elementary in Round Rock ISD (public school in Austin, Texas), to improved outcomes through Nature-Based Learning over the past several years, I’m satisfied that I’m living up to that ideal and excited to move on to my next adventure (in the non-profit world.)

From the Land

For the last eight years, I have been fortunate to work at a public school in northwest Austin with a supportive, progressive, empowering principal who believes in a student strength-and-interest based learning model. The campus, uniquely positioned adjacent to the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (endangered species habitat), had some success with “nature-based” or “outdoor” learning before I arrived through the work of a visionary former teacher who developed a wildspace-laboratory for his 20ish students on the four acres owned by the District that is un-fenced to the BCP, but that learning did not extend beyond his classroom.

“Sunday School With Mr. Hance”

Setting Roots in Nature-Based Learning

As a classroom teacher, I focused my work towards nature-based experiences, engaging and enriching students towards deep, systems-based learning that connected them to themselves by better understanding the world under their feet — and connecting them to each other through the air and water we all share.  Along the way, my work was recognized by a variety of local and international environmental/conservation based organizations including NOAA, National Geographic, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the EPA.  The path has proved true, and I’m proud of the work accomplished.

2016 State of Texas Environmental Excellence Award Banquet
2016 State of Texas Environmental Excellence Award Banquet


By my third year in the classroom, I was able to expand the model from 23 students to about 70. A year later, that jumped to 150 students a year.  The kids were thriving, parents were happy, and scores were good, so I started writing grants to bring more resources to the campus.

Several grant applications were successful, and I ultimately wrote over half-a-million dollars in grants for the school (not a bad gift from a teacher, right?).  As this systems-literacy/nature-based learning approach was evolving at the classroom level, I developed some new outdoor learning spaces on campus including:

  • doubling the size of plantable-area in the school’s edible gardens;
  • a student designed-and-constructed Water-Harvesting for Wildlife Structure that collects rainwater to help sustain the ponds on campus through the brutal heat of the Texas summer;
  • creation of a large, multi-tiered pollinator garden created with the help of an Integrative Biology Lab at the University of Texas; and,
  • the creation of a whimsical, fairy-tail themed “reading garden” that gave our youngest learners a place to engage “school” outside of a traditional brick-and-mortar setting (note:  this space was the vision and passion of an exceptional, now-retired kindergarten teacher).
Me, hanging out in the completed WH4WL Structure


The Reading Garden

The Right Growing Conditions

As those construction projects were wrapping up, the District offered an innovative competitive grant initiative where schools within the District could compete for six-figure grants to build new, or expand existing, programming. I liken it to being on the TV program “Shark Tank,” where a small company has a nice airplane, but they might be ready to put some jet engines on it and soar. With our success and history of data collection to drive the vision, we had the right growing conditions.

The Principal “asked me to volunteer” to draft the grant applications. After meeting with teachers, students, parent groups and community stakeholders, reviewing a decade’s worth of student interest surveys, and reviewing my many years of research on the emerging idea of “green schoolyards,” “nature play,” architecture, landscape architecture, and biophilic design (lots of nights, weekends and holidays were volunteered over several years), we agreed that the grants would be drafted to a) fund the creation of nature-based learning spaces/environments; and b) evolve our learning model to a conservation-based, constructivist-pedagogy in line with the increasing research establishing that all humans “are” and “do” better with regular exposure to nature.

We moved forward with with three goals that were included in each of the grants drafted as the evolution unfolded:

  • Advance all learners;
  • Pay particular attention to our students classified as “at risk” and,
  • Maintain high levels of teacher satisfaction.

The spaces are featured on my “Portfolio” page and include:

  • The Hive, a “teaching kitchen” connected to the school’s edible garden and pollinator garden, providing tangible “farm-to-table” based connections;
    • In addition to the curriculum connections (i.e. – fractions and energy exchanges), the space provides a gathering place for community building, where kids and stakeholders can share culture and heritage through culinary experiences;
  • The Grove, an approximate 1.5 acre nature-play green schoolyard designed by teams of students working with professional landscape architects;
    • The Grove includes trails, “rough-and-tumble” play, reflective play, outdoor classrooms, a rain garden, and specific supports for students on the autism spectrum, such as relief spaces for moments of over-stimulation, sensory play elements, natural boundaries, and vestibular, compression, “heavy-work”, and proprioceptive elements; and,
  • The Nature to Neighborhood Studio, an award winning off-grid, solar-powered, biophilic-design “workshop-shelter” facing the federally protected Balcones Canyonlands Preserve behind the campus.
    • The N2N Studio was constructed on an existing foundation where a rural, ranch-style home stood before the District opened the school in the mid-1980’s, and provides a particularly unique window into place-based perspectives.
The Nature to Neighborhood Studio (SEL, PBL, Place, Service, Science, Geography, etc.)
The Hive (teaching kitchen)
The Grove (nature play)

Tending the Fields

With the spaces designed and most programming funding secured from a variety of sources (grants, PTA, donations), the District invited me to create a job description (and take the new position) that allowed me to:

  • collaborate with grade-level teacher teams to design specific, “signature” learning experiences for each grade that connected:
    • state-defined learning standards (“TEKS”);
    • service learning; and,
    • sustainability and conservation;
  • design and deliver professional development for the teachers on the campus; and,
  • evolve other elements of success pertaining to scholarship and community building.

To further our goal of teacher satisfaction, we developed a series of interest surveys that would help guide the work, and continued to monitor and refine the progress over the past two years.

In year one (2017-2018), most of my work centered on construction project management (from the campus perspective), procurement of materials to support the program design, professional development, collaboration, co-teaching, and the development of a mastery-based learning program for students with demonstrated gaps in their academic success.

In year two (2018-2019), my focus was almost exclusively on designing and leading professional development for teachers that would decrease barriers to entry whilst simultaneously promoting adoption of the transformed learning model, and improve access and engagement in all spaces for all students…. We realized there had been a lot of changes in just a few years: 

  • the State had re-aligned some of the content;
  • we had changed a lot of the physical aspects of the campus;
  • we had changed the approach to the learning model based on the research related to the human benefits of nature-based learning; and,
  • the district had made a big change in our student demographics:
    • an existing program of students on the autism spectrum, their teachers and support staff and families were all transferred to the school between year 1 and year 2.
      • note:  on notice of the new community being transferred, we immediately convened a team of the teachers who would be transferring in with some of our existing campus and we successfully drafted another grant to appropriately welcome and support our entire community in the transition (see, e.g. – description of The Grove, above).

Focusing on the instructional core, we recognized our teachers as the gatekeepers to success and decided to work on developing “the level of mastery of the teacher” by providing “University Extension Course”-styled professional development for the teachers (see, Knowles, M. (1978) and Elmore, R. (2009)). With new, personalized deep-content knowledge gained, we trusted teachers as the masters of their craft and translators who would bring the resources to the classroom in ways that worked for their teaching and their students’ strengths, interests, and preferred modes of expression.

It worked.

Teacher PD in The Hive

Harvest:  Bountiful by Every Measure

Looking at the data available at the State, District, and Campus levels, at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, we have been successful by every available metric (student, staff, and community). Below are a few highlights:

  • Student Achievement: 2019 STAAR Tests (“State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness”) for Grade 5:
    • Reading: 108 students out of 135 tested achieved “MASTERS Grade Level”
      • 10% increase vs. 2017-2018
    • Math: 114 students out of 136 students achieved “MASTERS Grade Level”
      • 4% increase vs. 2017-2018
    • Source: Texas Education Agency
  • Student Achievement: Texas Elementary School Ranking:
    • 2019: 18th (statewide)
    • 2017: 20th
    • Source:
  • Student Achievement: Closing the Gap:
    • 2017-2018: 100% Adjusted Score “Closing The Gap”
    • Source: Texas Education Agency “School Report Card”
  • Student Impact:Depth
    • Teacher Survey:  “Looking through a purely academic lens, learning in natural spaces, including The Hive and Trout-in-the-Classroom resulted in long-impact learning for my students (note: examples might be use of knowledge outside the classroom, anecdotal stories, inquiry/research/portfolio-type projects”)
      • 2017-2018 (Year 1): 47% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”
      • 2018-2019 (Year 2): 77% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”
    • Source: Campus-created evaluation tool
  • Teacher/Staff Satisfaction:  Campus Morale
    • Campus Morale: 94% (vs. 78% District-wide)
    • Source: District Department of Research and Evaluation “2019 Climate Survey”
  • Teacher/Staff Satisfaction:  Professional Practice
    • Teacher Survey:  “My teaching improved this year by incorporating the new spaces and resources”
      • 2017-2018 (Year 1): 53% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”
      • 2018-2019 (Year 2): 90+% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”
    • Source: Campus-created evaluation tool
  • Transfer Requests:
    • Over 80% of parents requesting a transfer for their student(s) to the school in the 2019-2020 school year self-reported “environmental learning,” “outdoor learning,” or other themes related to “nature-based learning” as the motivating factor for the transfer request.
    • Source:  Campus-created evaluation tool.
  • Student Impact: Behavior
    • Teacher Survey:  “Looking through a purely behavioral lens, incorporating natural spaces and The Hive into learning resulted in fewer behavioral issues with students”
      • 2017-2018 (Year 1): 25% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”
      • 2018-2019 (Year 2): 53% “agreed” or “strongly agreed”
    • A worthwhile reminder on this particular result is that the “SLC Program” was transferred to the campus between Year 1 and Year 2, consisting of new teachers and staff to support a population of students on the autism spectrum.
      • In other words, teacher perception of the impact of nature-based play and learning on student behavior was more favorable the year the “high-needs” population was transferred to the campus.
    • Source:  Campus-created evaluation tool

Rotating Crops

Overall, we saw measurable gains in human development and academic achievement, teacher engagement and satisfaction with their jobs and professional development, and an increase in community engagement.  It has been an honor to have played a role in this transformation.

A decade ago I made a dramatic professional pivot, moving away from a law practice and business and dedicated my life to conservation, human development, and empowering the next generation of leaders and problem solvers. The pursuit of curiosity is exploration, and every step is an adventure… 


Me, at our sensory-play area in The Grove

My backpack is loaded and my hiking shoes are well broken in.  I can’t wait for what’s next…

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