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Teaching secondary science outside the classroom

Published: Apr 18, 2016 5 min read

Karen Hornby

Subject Specialist

National STEM Learning Centre

Going outside can add a sense of occasion to learning and make a lesson memorable. With better weather on the way, we asked around the office for some favourite ways to take the lesson outside. Here’s our top six physics activities and top four chemistry activities:


Top six outdoor physics activities:

  1. Model the solar system orbits and relative distances on a school field and if you're feeling adventurous, get the students to try and cycle (or walk) around the orbits at appropriate speeds (this can work well filmed and also requires some lateral mathematical thinking). 

    Related resource: This practical activity, from the Royal Society, helps students to visualise the scale of our solar system by drawing out the planets' orbits around the sun in a scale model. One astronomical unit is the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and this is used by astronomers to describe distances in space. A table is provided with the distance of each planet from the Sun given in astronomical units, which students can use to calculate a suitable scale for their model solar system based on the area they have available – the playground is ideal.
  2. Centripetal force – swinging a bucket of water in a vertical circle.  Does adding water mean you need to spin it faster or slower?  They can let go and see how it moves too… showing Newton’s First Law.  Link to satellites, ISS, planets orbiting. 

    Related resource: There are plenty more ideas for demonstrating circular motion in this collection, including a sparkler in a drill, using bowling balls and toys in space.
  3. Distance / time and speed / time graphs – timing sports events, build an obstacle course and record time at various distances.

    Related resource: Navigate is a helpful resource designed to enable students to be able to describe the differences between scalar and vector quantities, be able to calculate velocity, acceleration and distance covered and to be able to calculate resultant velocity of parallel vectors and vectors at right angles to each other. Also the Triple Science Support Programme has pulled together a useful set of resources to support students in interpreting graphs.
  4. Use a pond (or paddling pool) as a ripple tank experiment – feeding the ducks (peas and lettuce work well) can create great waves which allow you to see constructive and destructive interference. Small stones can also make circular ripples.

    Related resource: Interference patterns and Generating waves are two resources from the Institute of Physics which describe the use of ripples to study waves.
  5. Design a container to hold ice cream (or ice) for a picnic and test outside, applying knowledge of energy transfer.

    Related resource: Here’s a collection of resources to help plan a unit on energy transfer.
  6. Take a water rocket kit outdoors and get the students to work how high it goes (using some basic trigonometry) and its average speed.  You could link up with the mathematics department!


Top four outdoor chemistry activities: 

  1. Collect samples of different plant leaves and flowers. Extract the pigment (either in the field or back in the lab) and both run paper (or thin layer) chromatography, as well as testing the supernatant as an acid/base indicator.

    Related resource: This protocol for a reliable and enjoyable practical gives students the opportunity to observe the different pigments involved in photosynthesis using thin layer chromatography (TLC). A low-cost method to get the most out of TLC sheets, including the opportunity to identify the pigments involved using Rf values.
  2. Monitor the environment for pollution, using low-cost methods and data logging sensors if you have them. Is it true that you can avoid pollution by crossing the street?
  3. Model atomic structure outside using relative scales to get a better understanding of the dimensions involved.

    Related resource: Here’s a good resource to start students thinking about analogies for an atom , and a full suite of resources for atomic structure at A level.   For a nice history of models of the atom you’ll find this Catalyst article useful.
  4. Construct a chemistry science trail with stations around the school site to look at materials, etc. 

    Related resource: This Salters Chemistry Club resource provides a useful start. For a variation, you could use QR codes to guide students around. Use any QR code generator on the internet which converts text into the code, and then print and laminate them.


If you’ve taught a great lesson outside, let us know. You can simply comment, or send us a blog and some photos, or share your lesson plan in the science community group.