NatureMapping: What It Is and How It Can Be Used as a Learning Tool

Students spend their school days learning science, but rarely do they have the opportunity to contribute to it. With NatureMapping, students can learn important scientific and life skills while adding to a worldwide biodiversity catalog. In this article, we will learn what NatureMapping is, why it’s important, and how to incorporate it into our lesson plans.

What Is NatureMapping?

Nature mapping image

Image via Flickr by USFWS Pacific

If NatureMapping has been around since the 1990s, why should we care about it today? Quite simply, with our rampant use of natural resources, our environment is becoming increasingly fragile. It has become incumbent to focus on preserving our resources so future generations can enjoy them. Iowa NatureMapping at Iowa State University reports 1,087 threatened or endangered plant or animal species in the U.S., and typical protective strategies for them are generally reactive and unsuccessful.

NatureMapping also presents many learning opportunities for students. Karen Dvornich, Diane Petersen, and Ken Clarkson, authors of the “Awakening Inquiry” teaching resource, noticed that students lack “naturalist” skills and experience “sensory overload.” When students arrive in the field, they are overwhelmed by the experience and can’t remember preparatory classroom knowledge. Without naturalist skills, students didn’t know how to properly record observations, determine size and distance by measurement and estimation, use maps, analyze the data they collected, or tap into their natural inquiry. Clearly, these are skills that students would do well to have even away from the science.

How to Incorporate NatureMapping into Education

Fifteen states currently have NatureMapping programs or capabilities, so resources for incorporating NatureMapping into the curriculum may be readily available where you are.

  1. Become Certified: Many local NatureMapping programs require some sort of certification before becoming a NatureMapper. Check in your area for such requirements. Even without certification, students can NatureMap the wildlife they observe; however, they may not be able to enter it into local databases.
  2. Determine the Technology: Data recording can range from complex to easy; it just depends on what your local area uses, the technology you’re comfortable using, and the end purpose for the data. Students may have the opportunity to learn and use Naturetracker software on mobile devices. A simple Excel spreadsheet or even a pencil and paper may suffice. Use technology to help students learn an additional skill through their NatureMapping experience.
  3. Develop a Scientific Question: There are many species in nature, and they can be overwhelming to students. By developing a scientific question or focus, students can easily narrow down what they are searching for and concentrate better on the task at hand. The entire class can search for answers to a common question, such as what spiders eat; or small groups of students can create their own questions and observe accordingly.
  4. Incorporate Other Subjects: We all know that academic subjects are not mutually exclusive; we often find ourselves using knowledge from other subjects in our lessons. Depending on the assignment, a NatureMapping science lesson can integrate writing and public speaking skills, such as a paper and presentation on plant life in the local area. Additionally, students can learn other technologies such as compasses, Global Positioning Systems, and Global Information Systems; not only can they use these items, but they can learn their functions and purposes.
  5. Make It Personal: If an issue of natural resources is at the forefront of public discussion, turn a NatureMapping expedition into a research project related to the issue. A group of Washington students did just that, advocating before local officials to protect an area in which the school had been concentrating its NatureMapping efforts. This may be a great way to motivate urban students about NatureMapping since nature isn’t always at the forefront of their mind.
  6. Train Before Entering the Field: NatureMapping is largely observational, and students often don’t understand how to observe and become fully aware of their surroundings. Waiting to sharpen these skills in the field can be frustrating, so a bit of advance planning can make a difference. One Edutopia article suggests having students pair up, observe one another, then turn around and change their appearance slightly. Each student must determine what has changed, stretching their abilities to observe, recall, and identify.
  7. Draw Maps: A basic strategy for NatureMapping is to have students draw maps. Beginning with a map of the school drawn from memory, students will test their observation skills as they try to remember the location of certain items in the schoolyard. Students can then map certain species, such as vegetation, birds, mammals, or invertebrates, in whatever detail is appropriate for their grade level. Maps can help students distinguish between types of plants, record movement and habits of animals, or see how various species interact with one another.
  8. Seek Professional Help: Reaching out to professionals and graduate students in the field of wildlife and resource management can offer an added perspective to students’ observations. Because conservation efforts are a part of their daily routine, they may be able to teach students new ways to attract attention to wildlife and provide richer observations.

In Short

Although it has been around for more than two decades, NatureMapping is a useful educational strategy that connects well with current environmental issues. The benefits of NatureMapping are vast, reaching beyond science knowledge and into critical thinking and observation skills that will serve students well throughout their lives.


  1. Chris Salberg

    November 28, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Great article! I did not even know this existed…..

  2. Melanie Link Taylor

    November 29, 2015 at 7:37 am

    Yes! Nature contributes so much on so many levels. The perfect free STEM resources, just outside the door. How many fulfilling activities can involve identifying flora and fauna (name that tree on the schoolgrounds), or graphing meteorological change–as we know the sky is cheap entertainment–plus the kids would know what clothing to wear the next day. Participating in data collection is extremely validating. I would also suggest in warmer weather participating with North America Butterfly Association, also, North American Moth and Butterfly Association It is fun to upload pictures and to place your moth or butterfly sighting on a worldwide google map.