Learning can happen anywhere and anytime, as we are reminded each summer. Education is not simply the domain of schools but of museums, parks, computer labs, kitchens, libraries, and any number of settings where children spend time and explore. Kids are naturally inclined to examine and learn from their environments.

In order for young people to get the most out of disparate learning opportunities, however, they need help drawing connections among those varied experiences and translating them into new opportunities. That’s the basis for the concept of a pathway.

A learning pathway is a deliberately designed set of learning experiences—happening in sequence or simultaneously—that build on one another so the learner develops a depth of knowledge and expertise. Pathways help kids find relevance in classwork and, conversely, turn their out-of-school interests into learning opportunities.

Pathways help kids find relevance in classwork.

There may be no better candidate for a pathways approach to learning than environmental education, which is part of any complete STEM curriculum. Encouraged by the Next Generation Science Standards, environmental education is critical for today’s children, who will inherit a climate in peril. Young people who have hands-on interactions with the natural world on top of their classroom experience will better learn to respect and care for the planet.

An environmental education learning pathway can convene partners who already offer different yet complementary learning experiences in and out of doors. Through the framework of a pathway, they can pool their resources and work together to further students’ interests and understanding.

Pittsburgh learners will soon be able to follow a new environmental education pathway designed to set up participants for success after graduation. The “young conservationist” program, run by a consortium of local environmental organizations, is one of six pathways starting in the city this fall. Following the immersive ecological stewardship program, high school students will gain skills they can use in a career or hone in college. They can do conservation work in their communities, take online classes, and ultimately work as outdoor trip leaders.

This generation will make critical decisions about natural resources.

Career preparation is an important function of many environmental learning pathways. Environmental science jobs are growing faster than most, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The next generation of professionals will have to make critical decisions about natural resources and sustainability measures. Pathways can help leverage the curiosity kids already have about their environments and turn autonomous learning experiences into opportunities for success later on.

Other pathways are geared toward younger students, exposing them to outdoor education early in life. In Mountain View, California, a number of environmental education entities have created a robust pathway for elementary school students. The collaborative includes education nonprofits, an organic farm, the Audubon Society, a marine science institute, the county, and the Mountain View Whisman School District. The partners coordinate with one another, offering hands-on scientific investigation opportunities to youngsters.

Each step along the Mountain View pathway strengthens the impact of the others. By collecting data from wildlife habitats, the students put into practice the scientific method they learn in class. By identifying birds through binoculars, milking cows, and playing in creeks, they can engage directly with the ecosystems they have studied. Follow-up lessons help them retain the knowledge and dig into concepts that piqued their interest.

Pathways, despite the name, are not necessarily linear. As in Mountain View, they can simply lend a valuable framework to a number of engaging learning experiences, ensuring that young people connect the dots and follow paths to new opportunities.