Outdoor classrooms a breath of fresh air for some students, professors

White chairs sit on a grassy field underneath a white tent.
Outdoor classrooms are located at Commencement Plaza on Pitzer’s campus. (Justin Sleppy • The Student Life)

Seen in the speckled shade behind Pomona College’s Carnegie Hall, beneath neat white tents on the Scripps College Alumnae Field or in the middle of Claremont McKenna College’s tennis courts, classrooms across the Claremont Colleges have migrated outside for the semester.

The Southern California climate is already a large part of the appeal of the 5Cs. This year, consistently pleasant temperatures and lack of rain have become less of a perk and more of a necessity. Weather that once was only a catalyst for casual summer clothes and sunnier moods now allows classes to easily be shifted outdoors, which can greatly impact the physical safety and mental well-being of both professors and their students.

Sumita Pahwa, Scripps professor of politics and chair of the Department of Middle East and North Africa Studies, expressed the security she feels teaching outside.

“Teaching in that space, even with a mask, is far more comfortable, and feels far safer, than teaching indoors, for me … particularly given that I have young children at home who cannot be vaccinated and who I may be exposing to infection if I can’t teach with the maximum level of safety,” Pahwa said via email.

However, as students and professors have discovered over these first three weeks of classes, the benefits of learning in an outdoor environment don’t begin and end with COVID-19 safety. Even before the pandemic, CMC literature professor Leland de la Durantaye occasionally held class meetings outdoors. 

“I’ve often gone outside when it seemed like that was the right thing for the class … if there had been a little bit of need for variety or the weather was particularly nice, or we were talking about something where it would be appropriate,” de la Durantaye said. 

A change in the learning environment, especially one with increased space and open air, can provide unexpected benefits. Pomona biology professor Jon Moore began to consider the holistic advantages of outdoor education when it came to moving his 31-student Introductory Genetics course outside. 

“People can spread out a little more because there’s just more space, and also being outdoors, you don’t get the echoes off the walls,” Moore said, referencing occasional difficulty communicating with a small group in a crowded classroom setting. 

Teaching outside provides a new flexibility to the classroom itself, one which Moore enjoys. 

“In the context of group work, when people are done they can leave, even when it’s not the exact end of class,” he said. “I liked the idea of people being able to walk out in roughly 360 degrees of direction … it sort of made it less of an event when someone walked out the door. I liked that from a pedagogical point of view.” 

This fluidity doesn’t go unnoticed by students. Reia Li PO ’24 felt similarly about her experience in Methods and Modern Modeling. In this Scripps course, each student is provided with a lightweight table and chair, which they are free to shift and reconfigure as they form groups to engage in discussion. 

“It feels a lot less like, ‘Sit in one place’ … you get to move, you get to be a part of it. I’m definitely more engaged,” Li said. 

And in Taliana Abadi SC ’24’s dance class, the outdoor environment almost intensifies the learning experience. The course heavily involves experimental movement and exercises designed to get students out of their comfort zones. Mimicking animals or staring intensely into a classmate’s eyes is difficult enough indoors, but outside, the feeling of exposure is sharpened. 

However, Abadi remarked, this isn’t entirely a bad thing.

“It does make it less of a private thing, but honestly, that’s kind of part of class — to not be embarrassed of that kind of thing … [the outdoor classroom] serves its own purpose,” she said. 

The beauty of the campus is a bonus, as well. 

“It’s really beautiful out here. Especially in this kind of class where you’re trying to get in tune with your body, just being outdoors, having the wind blow and the birds and everything kind of makes it a little easier,” Abadi said. 

White chairs sit in front of white tables in an outdoors space.
Outdoor classrooms are located across Harvey Mudd’s campus. (Justin Sleppy • The Student Life)

Not all classroom setups are created equal. While the Scripps outdoor classrooms boast artificial floors, fans, computer screens and tented ceilings, the Pitzer tents contain no audio or visual equipment. And in Camile Bernard PO ’24’s psychology class, taught outside Pomona’s Carnegie Hall, the classroom is a cluster of tables on woodchip-strewn ground, shaded only by the trees above them. 

In Southern California summer, these disparities can become glaringly obvious as the day wears on. 

“It gets really hot and especially when the sun’s beating down on us — the class is at 2:35 in the afternoon — a lot of time you’re really focusing on yourself overheating rather than the material being taught,” Bernard said. 

The heat requires a new level of adaptability, one which involves attention to both the weather and the needs of students. De la Durantaye has been moving his classroom location between the different tents on the CMC tennis courts, selecting the ones that provide the best learning conditions. 

In the right place, the experience becomes wholly positive. 

“Shadier, quieter, cooler, it’s really aesthetically the most pleasing and also the climate is the most pleasant … it’s really quite a nice place to teach,” de la Durantaye said of his favorite tent.

For Pitzer College history professor Andre Wakefield, whose late-afternoon class meets in the peak heat of the day, location changes have to be more extreme. 

“We keep making collective classroom decisions, which I think is how you have to do it — just keep checking in with everybody,” he said. Ultimately, with the feedback of his students in mind, Wakefield decided to move the class inside when the temperature reaches 90 degrees. 

Temperature troubles, equipment disparities, airplane interference and the occasional bug attack all mean that even in California, the outdoor learning environment isn’t as Edenic as one might think. However, the safety benefits, combined with the undeniable pros of the outdoor atmosphere, make this trade-off bearable — even worthwhile. Bernard believes the environment will grow more and more comfortable as summer transitions into fall. 

“The first few weeks are going to be rough, but I would encourage other teachers, as the weather gets nicer, to go outside,” Bernard said. 

Only in SoCal does “nicer” mean colder. 

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