Lawrence Hall of Science to open new outdoor science education space on Sunday

The new Outdoor Nature Lab is the UC Berkeley museum’s biggest expansion in 20 years.

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The new Outdoor Nature Lab at the Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
Lawrence Hall of Science-Outdoor lab
Gisela Tarifa, a Lawerence Hall of Science staffer, stands on a stairway made of logs at the Outdoor Nature Lab. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

For some who attended California’s public schools, school-organized 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 floor facilitator Gisela Tarifa, never had a 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, opening to the public on Sunday, will help provide outdoor science education to those who may not be able to afford the cost of attending overnight field trips. 

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 coming from a 2018 grant from the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The space consists of an outdoor classroom, picnic area and several viewing platforms.

Spotting scopes on tripods will be set up on the platforms to help kids gaze at nearby wildlife — everything from deer, to red-tailed hawks to, if you’re lucky, Berkeley’s famous peregrine falcons. Staff will also hand out binoculars, magnifying glasses and macro lens bands, which allow smartphone cameras to take extremely close-up shots. Leftover scraps of a now-removed pine tree, coated in mint green lichen, make popular viewing. So do insects.

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

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

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This dead redwood tree, which is meant for kids to scramble over, had formerly been on display at a shopping center in Santa Rosa. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

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

“Most of us are given the gifts to be able to notice things, either with their eyes or ears or sense of touch… you don’t need fancy equipment, you don’t need fancy shoes, you don’t need, oftentimes, even specialized knowledge,” Chao said. “Everybody can participate.”

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

“T​​here’s an impression that you need to have all the right gear, and that can be kind of expensive,” Chao said. “But what if having access to nature was kind of a little bit more democratic? We can all come outside, we can all appreciate it in the same way, and there are no barriers.”

The museum’s last large addition, “Forces that Shape the Bay,” opened in 2003, offering a 180-degree view of the San Francisco Bay. The next big project for the museum include a renovation of its Animal Discovery Zone, which holds teaching animals ranging from chinchillas to a 35-year-old tortoise. 

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


Correction: The headline in a previous version of this story gave the wrong day that the Outdoor Nature Lab opens to the public. It opens Sunday, June 19. The story has also been changed 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 environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. Email: iris@berkeleyside.org.