Getting up, close and personal with nature

Updated: 2011-05-30 07:52

By Liu Xiangrui (China Daily)

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Armed with a flashlight and a camera, Li Yunjie, an eighth grade student, emerges from a park late one evening with a bottle of cicada grubs.

Her little adventure is just one of many that form part of her optional nature class that runs every Wednesday. It was started by Ni Yinong, a biology teacher of 20 years with the Middle School Affiliated to Peking University.

The idea behind the class that began two years ago, Ni says, is to give students suffering from what he calls "nature-deficit disorder" a chance to bridge the gap.

Wang Fu, researcher with China National Institute for Educational Research, says Chinese schools are excessively focused on textbook teaching at the expense of hands-on experiences that can enhance students' learning and foster interests.

"It's critical for our youngsters to be in touch with nature in this rapidly industrializing society," Wang says.

Ni says, "It's okay even if they join (the nature class) to relax, as long as it enriches their life".

He believes personal observations complement theoretical knowledge and help students understand the interactions between human beings and the environment better.

Inspired by his ideas, two other biology teachers have also joined Ni's experimental adventure.

"I just want to share my experiences with students," says Han Dong, who joined Ni to share his interest in bird-watching. Han, who has a master's degree from Canada, finds Chinese youngsters generally "less willing to explore the outside world".

The school supports the nature class with equipment such as high-powered binoculars and cameras, costing more than 100,000 yuan ($15,400).

The nature class is currently open only to seventh and eighth grade students and invites experts on birds, fossils and minerals, to share their stories with the students.

The assessment also takes novel forms. Han often asks his students to identify pictures of similar looking birds, or tells them to find a particular plant on campus.

Getting up, close and personal with nature

"Most of the students knew nothing about birds and insects, but they are little experts now," says Ni, who spends a lot of time outside class guiding them.

Li Yunjie, who has a mottled mantis as a pet, says she is now "more knowledgeable, patient and curious".

Fifteen-year-old Zhang Xinyi finds the nature class helps her release the stress of studies while also providing an opportunity to interact with peers.

"I used to bury myself in books and was preoccupied with high marks," Zhang says.

She recalls her excitement at being able to keep her classmate's pet cockroach for two days and their camping trip to Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, where she observed rare local species like the white-headed langur.

However Wang, the researcher, admits that it is difficult to promote the nature class to schools, which are still focused on theoretical knowledge.

China Daily


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