Engaging with Science | Nov 21, 2016 | By Marcus Threndyle, Education and Outreach Assistant

IISD-ELA: A real-world outdoor classroom

Let’s be honest: our best memories from grade school aren’t from the classroom. For young students, trips outside of the school walls come as welcome punctuations within the school year, and can often become formative learning moments.

Personally, I still remember visiting an outdoor education centre outside my hometown of Cambridge, Ontario, in Grade 3. It was the first time I had learned about zooplankton, and I was enthralled, staring through a microscope and observing a seemingly alien world that I never knew existed, all contained within a cup of pond water. It was apparent to me the first time I arrived at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) field station that it is the perfect place to offer similar educational opportunities to young students. A real-world outdoor classroom, if you will.


Most field researchers and biologists live for the field work: the long days on the lake collecting samples, catching fish and getting sunburned. Students should, therefore, ideally learn about environmental science right within the natural environment about which they are learning. To teach kids most effectively about all that IISD-ELA does to protect our environment, we need to get them outside, where they can get their hands dirty, their feet wet and understand what actually goes into the day-to-day study of our fresh water.

Recognizing this, IISD-ELA has been excited to further develop and expand our school tours program this fall. After two classes visited in the spring, IISD-ELA hosted 10 school trips in September and October, welcoming over 280 students from Grades 4–12 to our facility. We connected with schools from all three local school boards, and with Migisi Sahgaigan School from a local First Nation.

IISD-ELA is uniquely positioned to offer this program to students from Kenora, Dryden and surrounding communities. Where I went to school in southern Ontario, there are half a dozen outdoor education centres and as many museums within a 30 minute drive. The same facilities simply aren’t available to teachers in our less densely populated areas in the north of the province. Moreover, there is no place on earth like our facility, where you can carry out whole-ecosystem experimentation on real lakes over an extended period of time. IISD-ELA, therefore, has a great responsibility to open our doors to local schools, and offer an outdoor classroom for students to learn about the beautiful and rugged landscape that they grow up surrounded by, and the unique world-class science that takes place there.

A day trip to IISD-ELA gives students the chance to learn about history and science at the world-renowned research facility in their neighbourhood. We visit nearby lakes, talk about climate change, and use a seine net to capture fish along shore. Students don hip waders to kick-net for benthic macroinvertebrates and sweep net for zooplankton to take up to the labs and examine under a microscope. Their visit concludes with a tour through our fish laboratory and visit to our meteorological site—if there’s still time!

For IISD-ELA, it’s an investment in the future. We want to nurture the ecologists and freshwater scientists of the future, and give them an opportunity like no other to work on real lakes. Our facility continually hosts great scientists from around the world, and we hope to continue to help form those of the future too.