Date of Award

December 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Urban Education

First Advisor

Elizabeth Drame

Committee Members

Decoteau Irby, John Munson, Maggie Bartlett


Engagement, Experiential Learning, Hands-on Learning, Informal Learning, Learning Disabilities, Urban Education


Research has shown that there is an achievement gap with students of color in the urban environment and their White non-urban peers (Norman, Ault, Bentz, & Meskimen, 2001; National Research Council, 2012) additionally an achievement gaps exists between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2011). The demand for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) preparation is growing and more students need to be prepared in school for STEM careers (Carlson, 1997). The didactic traditional style of teacher led text book reading has proven unsuccessful for large groups of urban youths and students with disabilities (Kahle, Meece, & Scantlebury, 2000; Haberman, 1991; National Research Council, 2012). Using a hands-on, experiential informal learning environments in science has proven successful in engaging students to the science curriculum (National Research Council, 2012). Nature has also proven to engage students into the curriculum. This study combines these topics and addresses the gap in the literature where these topics overlap. This qualitative case study sought to understand how students with learning disabilities from an urban environment experienced nature-based informal learning.

The participants for this exploratory case study informed by ethnographic methods of observation involved seven eighth grade students with learning disabilities from an inclusive science program at a public urban school. The students participated in four nature related informal learning experiences that were aligned to the science curriculum. These students’ experiences were collected from observations, and conducting both one-on-one interviews and focus groups. The data was then triangulated, analyzed thematically, and interpreted. The students’ experiences were shared thematically. The three themes which emerged from the data were:

-Hands-on learning is an engaging and a more enjoyable way of learning for students with learning disabilities.

-There is not enough science being taught.

-Students are not habitually accessing natural areas.