Lawrence Hall of Science opens outdoor nature lab

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The new Outdoor Nature Lab at Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Lawrence Hall of Science-External Laboratory
Lawerence Hall of Science staff member Gisela Tarifa stands on a log staircase at the Outdoor Nature Lab. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

For some who attended California public schools, the school’s outdoor science camps might bring back fond childhood memories of spending time exploring nature and learning about native plants and wildlife. . Some went on trips to Yosemite National Park; others spent several days in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

But others, including Lawrence Hall of Science host Gisela Tarifa, never had the chance to attend outdoor camps growing up.

“I couldn’t afford trips like that,” Tarifa said.

Tarifa hopes the UC Berkeley Science Center’s new outdoor nature lab, which opens to the public on Sunday, will help provide outdoor science education to those who may not have the means to participate in night excursions.

The $3.25 million, 32,600 square foot outdoor learning space is the science center’s first major expansion in 20 years, with $500,000 in funding from a 2018 grant from the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The space consists of an outdoor classroom, picnic area, and multiple viewing platforms.

Telescopes on tripods will be set up on the platforms to help children observe nearby wildlife – everything from deer and red-tailed hawks to, if you’re lucky, the famous Berkeley peregrine falcons. Staff will also distribute binoculars, magnifying glasses and macro lens strips, which allow smartphone cameras to take extremely close-up photos. The remains of a now-removed pine tree, covered in mint-green lichen, make viewing popular. Insects too.

Lawrence Hall of Science-External Laboratory
Lichen seen through a magnifying glass. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Lawrence Hall of Science-External Laboratory
Native flowers at Lawerence Hall of Science, photographed with a cell phone using a macro lens strip. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The new outdoor space is accessible from the lower level of the museum and was built in what was once an empty grass field filled with weeds. Native vegetation, including young manzanita trees, was planted.

Lawrence Hall of Science-External Laboratory
This dead redwood, intended for children, was once on display in a Santa Rosa mall. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Public education specialist Eva Chao described a learning activity to be conducted in the space, called “I noticed, I wonder”, which encourages children to think like scientists and ask questions on the world around them.

“Most of us have a knack for noticing things, whether it’s with our eyes, ears, or sense of touch…you don’t need fancy equipment, you don’t need of fancy shoes, you often don’t even need expert knowledge,” Chao said. “Anyone can participate.

Chao hopes to show kids that they don’t have to be a field biologist to “experience a connection to nature that’s not just emotional, but also scientific.” Nature is everywhere, and so the museum wants to encourage children to use their observation skills – not only within the doors of this space, but also in their daily lives.

“There’s a feeling that you have to have all the right equipment, and that can be quite expensive,” Chao said. “But what if having access to nature was a little more democratic? We can all date, we can all enjoy it equally, and there are no barriers.

The museum’s last major addition, “The Forces That Shape the Bay,” opened in 2003, offering a 180-degree view of the San Francisco Bay. The museum’s next big project includes renovating its animal discovery area, which houses educational animals ranging from chinchillas to a 35-year-old tortoise.

Admission to the Outdoor Nature Lab is included with museum admission ($20 for visitors ages 3 and up). The cost of admission will be reduced to $5 on the lab’s opening day, June 19.


Correction: The title of an earlier version of this story gave the wrong opening day for the Outdoor Nature Lab to the public. It opens on Sunday, June 19. The story was also edited to clarify that a grant from the California Department of Parks and Recreation did not cover the full cost of the project.

Iris Kwok covers the Berkeleyside environment through a partnership with Report for America.

Email: [email protected]

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