April C. Smith: Discovering Science and Nature Through Outdoor Exploration

Today we welcome a guest post by April C. Smith and Sarah J. Carrier, editor and assistant editor of Thirty Great North Carolina Science Adventures: From Underground Wonderlands to Islands in the Sky and Everything in Between, out now from UNC Press.

North Carolina possesses an astonishingly rich array of natural wonders. Building on this abundance, April C. Smith passionately seeks to open the world of nature to everyone. Her popular science guidebook features thirty sites across North Carolina that are perfect for exploration and hands-on learning about the Earth and the environment. A stellar group of naturalists and educators narrate each adventure, explaining key scientific concepts by showing you exactly where and how to look. This guidebook is for anyone—teens, kids, families, hikers, teachers, students, and tourists alike—who loves to be outside while learning.

Thirty Great North Carolina Science Adventures is now available in paperback and ebook editions.

You can also check out a new series of videos related to the book on the UNC Press Youtube channel. April C. Smith explains what you can learn and do at Jockeys Ridge State Park and in the Sandhills of North Carolina.


Discovering Science and Nature Through Outdoor Exploration

Recall, if you will, ten of the most memorable childhood experiences that made you who you are today. These could be experiences with others, or perhaps when you were alone. Can you recall a feeling of excitement, wonder, or awe from your experiences? Were they things that captured your imagination and made you want to dig a little deeper? Were they things that you wanted to share with your best friend, knowing that he or she would feel just as excited as you?

I have images of myself walking through cypress swamps, closely observing the cypress knees, noting the amount of water that they were standing in, and looking for snakes. I remember countless hours spent barefoot on oyster reefs in the inlet near my grandparent’s house. I remember my favorite place to camp on the river, and I remember shortly after learning to scuba dive, sitting on the bow of a friend’s boat on a calm summer day, looking out over the horizon when a giant manta ray breached the ocean’s surface. These are the moments that pull at a child’s heartstrings, and they are the ones that called me to be an environmental scientist.

When I asked my assistant editor, Sarah Carrier, to recall her early experiences of exploration, she described them to me this way:

As a child, I spent most of my free time exploring outdoors, wading in creeks and hiking in woods. Whether I examined the exoskeleton of a cicada, classified features of rocks, or compared the fluidity of streams with those in cirrus clouds, I began to learn about the patterns and beauty in nature. These experiences instilled in me a life-long love for both learning and for the outdoors.

It’s a strangely familiar story, where learning to explore leads to a lifetime of discovery and recognition of the beauty of the world around you. The researcher Louise Chawla (1998) calls these “significant life experiences” because they provide a context for who we are and serve as a template for who we become.

For myself, “significant life experiences” led me to become a researcher of saltmarsh ecosystems, and then later to recognize the importance of my role as a mother in teaching my own three children how to explore the world around them. I expect them to be outside as much as possible. I expect them to get dirty, to ask questions, and to not be afraid of the unknown. And I expect them to discover on their own that scientific exploration may not be their career path in life, but even in everyday terms, it will always provide a path to the generation of knowledge, open-ended thought, and endless amounts of inspiration.

For Sarah, outdoor exploration influenced her decision to become a teacher who embraced sharing her love of science and the natural world with children, and then later to become a science teacher educator, sharing that same love with future and current teachers. I can’t think of a more noble profession than teaching teachers how to share a love of science and the outdoors with the children who are destined to guide Earth’s future. Today we know that teaching and learning about the natural world is most effective when one is situated in the context being studied (Carrier, 2009; Lloyd & Gray, 2014), whether learners are engaged in studies of natural systems, life cycles, patterns of nature, or simply embracing the beauty of the outdoors. Advances in neuroscience have even identified the contributions of such outdoor engagement, where multiple regions of the brain are stimulated during active learning (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018), and such experiences in the outdoors support the construction of conceptual knowledge.

Scientific discovery begins early in life, and it should last a lifetime.

One of my greatest social concerns these days revolves around those children who are not encouraged to go outside to explore the natural world, and some are even discouraged. Surrounded by my own children, ages ranging from 7 to 16, I encounter many kids of all ages and abilities every day, and I can say with some certainty that very few spend their days covered in mud or climbing trees. If neighborhood kids are catching fireflies, it’s in my backyard. If we’re stopping to look at ants or caterpillars on the greenway, it’s because I encouraged it. Without even realizing it, the parental mentality of “don’t get dirty!” and “don’t touch that!” has gone beyond the unnecessary need to keep kids away from “germs,” and has now reached into the psyches of our little ones who believe with their whole bodies that nature can be dangerous and should be avoided.

Here lies the true motivation for this book. It’s a book that appeals to a very broad audience, encouraging all to get outside and explore, but the high hope is that adults will begin to encourage kids to explore science and nature again, and adults should know that the kids don’t need us there, hovering, as if we’re terrified of ant bites and whatever might be living in the dirt. They need us to take a step back and let them explore on their own, allowing imagination and curiosity to reign. Scientific discovery is not solely defined by the articles we read in peer-reviewed journals. Scientific discovery begins early in life, and it should last a lifetime. From the first time a child puts something in her mouth to the first tree she climbs entirely by herself. From the first stream crossing to the multitudes of insects identified, and the dozens of sparkly rocks collected on a favorite riverbank, scientific discovery is what happens when a person, young or old, learns to explore and appreciate the beauty of nature and the world that is all around us.


Carrier, S. (2009). The effects of outdoor science lessons with elementary school students on preservice teachers’ self-efficacy. Journal of Elementary Science Education, 21(2), 35-48.

Chawla, L. (1998). Significant life experiences revisited: A review of research on sources of environmental sensitivity. The Journal of Environmental Education, 29(3), 11-21.

Lloyd, A., & Gray, T. (2014). Place-based outdoor learning and environmental sustainability within Australian Primary Schools. Journal of Sustainability Education, 28(1), 1-16.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/24783.


April C. Smith, president of In Situ Explorers, is a former environmental researcher who now enjoys sharing the wonders of science and nature with others. Follow her on Twitter.

Sarah J. Carrier is associate professor of science education at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter.