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Updated: Oct 13, 2021

As teachers we can easily get tired of giving PowerPoint Presentations. We feel the pressure to cover content at an ever-increasing pace. This steals the joy of teaching because we are constantly stressing about the fear of low AP scores. As a result, we end up racing through the curriculum and often still get disappointed by lower than hoped for AP scores. Personally I used to have nightmares about the score release day in July! So the question is, if we're stuck in this cycle, why do we continue it year to year? There is a better, more joyful way to learn and increase AP exam scores that will help our own well-being and that of our students.

Let’s start by taking the focus off of AP exam scores for a moment. I think we can all agree that there are higher goals in education, such as cultivating students who are:

  • Knowledgeable

  • Passionate

  • Persistent

  • Courageous

  • Deep-thinkers

  • Creative

  • Compassionate

  • Honest

  • Able to contribute new knowledge to humanity

Next, let’s create a plan to create a classroom environment that embraces those values and delivers the curriculum effectively. Let’s elaborate on topics that students are unsure of or are fascinated by. I’ll share my approach to teaching AP Environmental Science for the upcoming school year. Perhaps you’ll find elements of this approach that you can incorporate into your teaching.

Personally, I don’t rely on PowerPoint Presentations or a textbook. In fact, I don’t use a textbook at all anymore. I leave a class set in the room for reference, but for the most part they sit unused all year. Unless there is a special presentation by a guest speaker, the students don’t view PowerPoint Presentations during class anymore either.

Instead, I make the foundation of our class:

  1. Vibrant discussions centered on case studies that include FRQ-style questions

  2. Laboratory investigations, field studies, simulations, and demonstrations selected from the Science Outside Lab Manual (We use 1 - 4 from each unit)

  3. Mr. Smedes or AP Daily videos

  4. AP Classroom Multiple Choice Exams taken online for each of the 9 Units

Everything is carefully chosen to support the AP Environmental Science Curriculum, but it doesn’t feel like it to the students. Instead of fear, students approach the exam with calm confidence. The only test prep we do is the practice exams together during the 2-3 weeks just prior to taking the exam.

Class is more fun for teachers and students when most of the time is allocated to actively participating in discussions or actually doing hands-on activities. I used to be the “Sage on the Stage” and now I’m the “Guide on the Side”. More importantly, this approach is far more effective at developing students who possess the aforementioned characteristics.

This is not the “right” way to teach the course, and our teaching should evolve every year. Yet, for those who are interested, this is my playbook for the 2021-22 academic year, and I hope some teachers benefit from my sharing it. And, for those who are wondering, this year I’m planning on using the following case studies in the following order:

Unit 0: Introduction to Environmental Science

American Chestnut

Unit 1: The Living World: Ecosystems

Cicadas, Oysters, Eating at a Different Trophic Level

Unit 2: The Living World: Biodiversity

Beavers, Moose

Unit 3: Population

Wild Turkeys OR North Atlantic Right Whale, The Human Population

Unit 4: Earth Systems and Resources

Earthworms, Earth’s Climate

Unit 5: Land and Water Use

Coast Redwoods, Sustainable Agriculture

Unit 6: Energy Resources and Consumption

Firewood, Nuclear Power, Wind Power

Unit 7: Atmospheric Pollution

Photochemical Smog, Asbestos OR Radon, Brook Trout in the Adirondacks

Unit 8: Aquatic and Terrestrial Pollution

American Alligators, The Great Stink, Solid Waste

Unit 9: Global Change

Stratospheric Ozone Depletion, Climate Change Virtual Escape Adventure, Climate Change, Gray Wolves in Colorado, American Bison

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Shawna Mattson
Shawna Mattson
Oct 14, 2021

Would you be willing to share what labs you use from the science outside laboratory manual as well for each unit?

Science Outside
Science Outside
Oct 14, 2021
Replying to

This is a great question! I'd be happy to share which labs I use most often, but I think every school has a different bell schedule, some have access to outdoor areas and some do not, individual teachers have their own specific skill sets, etc. I personally use all of them but I teach three different academic levels of environmental science and I don't use all of them in any given year in any given class. Let me think about this and make this the topic for an upcoming blog post! Thank you!


Science Outside
Science Outside
Oct 12, 2021

Hi April! We're glad you asked. Check out the following blog post for some teaching strategies to use with case studies:


April Kelley
April Kelley
Oct 11, 2021

I am trying to design a course around the science outside case studies - can you provide more details on how you actually use the case studies in class? Currently I have students read & complete biozone AP workbook pages as homework; case study readings & questions in class (not generating a lot of student engagement) or mini-labs & discussions, Smedes videos for review prior the test. I need ways to spice it up! Thx

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