Professional Development: Yosemite Field Institute

A short course for science teachers at Yosemite National Park changed how three Fellows use outdoor education in their classrooms.


“Hey, I think I found one! Come take a look, it’s right here.”

One of the authors getting up close and personal with
the rock described in the text. Photo credit: Krystal Park.

Description of the Institute

The primary focus of the Yosemite Field Institutes is to give teachers practical, in-depth training on how to lead students through field-based explorations. This training unfolds over the course of several days through a series of outdoor activities designed to have participants engage with content, phenomena, and pedagogy as both teachers and learners. Typically, the Field Institutes center around a theme related to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS); this year’s theme is “Concepts, Core Ideas and Practices.” This theme is first explored shortly after participants arrive and then revisited many times throughout the Institute as teachers are urged to think about how to bring it back to their own classrooms.

Teacher learning and implementation (Jesse)

My experiences at the Field Institutes have been nothing short of incredible, and this year will be my fourth time returning to Yosemite as either a participant or facilitator. On a personal level, simply taking time to be outside, making observations and learning about the natural world, has been a good way to mentally reset during the summer. The rich professional learning is almost an added bonus to this vitally important time and experience away from the classroom.

Teacher learning and implementation (Brianna)

I remember our first task at the Yosemite Field Institute because it transformed the way I think about engaging students with the outdoors. We were sent out into the woods to find a spot where we could sit alone. The prompt was simple: “Write down what you notice and wonder.” In 15 minutes, I filled my nature journal with observations and questions that never would have crossed my mind had I not been asked to sit alone in one place silently with my eyes and ears open. Could unleashing my students’ powers of observation be this simple?

2017 participant Erika Mitkus, a 2016 Knowles
Teaching Fellow, journaling at the peak of Sentinel
Dome, looking out over Yosemite Valley and Half Dome.
Photo credit: Erika Mitkus.

Teacher learning and implementation (Bernice)

If you were to ask me about what I learned at any given professional development training from three years ago, I might have a hard time giving you something beyond the major takeaways. I would have the same problem if you asked about most of my science courses in college. However, the Field Institutes are different. I can tell you in detail about the life cycle of wildflowers across Yosemite’s meadows, or the observation prompts, or the tree phenology project mentioned by Jesse and Brianna. All I would need to do is pull out my nature journal from the Yosemite Field Institutes and look through my sketches and field notes. The lessons of this professional development course have also stayed with me so clearly because I still use them almost daily in my teaching practice.


A student’s scientific illustration of a common kingfisher, her final product for Bernice’s short course in field research techniques and scientific sketching.
Students used scientific sketching to make observations of a plant of their choice at their home sit-spot during the first week of Bernice’s short course.


Balke, B., O’Brien, B., & Stonewood, J. (2018). Professional development: Yosemite Field Institute. Kaleidoscope: Educator Voices and Perspectives, 4(2), 21–26.



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Knowles Teacher Initiative

Knowles Teacher Initiative


The Knowles Teacher Initiative supports the efforts of high school mathematics and science teachers to improve education in their classrooms and beyond​.