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New online ecology programming aims to better connect students and teachers with the outdoors—just when everyone needs it most

How an online shift increased outdoor learning opportunities


New online ecology programming aims to better connect students and teachers with the outdoors—just when everyone needs it most

One year ago, we at The Ecology School were confronted with the pandemic reality of cancelled in-person programs in exchange for remote, virtual learning. What we created in the wake of those changes led to new outdoor learning journeys–relevant not just on Earth Day, but every day.

We quickly filled a need and began by connecting with our students and families through Nature Nuggets, short activity-based videos shot with our cell phones and shared through social media. These videos were structured to engage participants in observation-based field ecology and discoveries within their quarantine bubbles. Using their five senses to explore and learn, viewers were introduced to complex scientific concepts through simple activities and playful experiences.

As the at-home days wore on and our Nature Nuggets gained thousands of views online, we realized additional resources could help us reach so many more people who were desperately seeking this sort of content.

From around the United States, we saw students and families wanting to unplug, step away from their devices, and embark on outdoor learning discoveries and scientific journeys. We were determined to offer these activities that could be done just outside someone’s door, whether the door led to a cityscape or a big backyard.

After securing crucial support from Poland Springbrand, we developed a new The Ecology School experience, EcologyOnline sponsored by Poland Spring. EcologyOnline is an online learning platform hosting a series of educational activities, thematically organized into Life and Earth Science content areas. Each area includes a funny introductory skit, followed by three accompanying activities that address the theme laid out in the skit. Each activity is introduced and demonstrated with a short video, and then students head outside to execute activities. 

Additionally, there are printable sheets for each activity that invite participants to engage further in scientific practices, including data collection and communication. All activities address Next Generation Science Standards. Specifically, the activities demonstrate the behaviors that scientists engage in as they investigate the natural world through the Science Practices as defined in NGSS: Asking Questions, Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations, engaging in Argument from Evidence, and Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information.

Our goal in doing this work is to: 

1.     Invite a wide audience of participants from a range of geographic areas to engage in authentic, outdoor-based science, and 

2.     Promote healthy, active (and fun!) engagement outdoors, away from screens while supporting the practices and behaviors of solid scientific inquiry. 

As an added bonus, the program we created provides real-world experiences in E-STEAM (Environment, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). Throughout the units and within the activities, participants are given routes to apply the activities within each of these disciplines more broadly. As an example, a watershed activity invites the participant to look for evidence of water, and then they move into an activity where they observe how water flows over different substrates. Opportunities to engage in observation, use tools, design solutions, and create–in addition to applying mathematical skills through data collection–provides an opportunity for a synergistic experience that looks and feels very different than most classroom learning.

EcologyOnline is free, has lessons for students of all ages and ability levels, and is the perfect supplement to existing ecology curricula or can stand on its own for schools that do not currently have ecology offerings. Most importantly, using EcologyOnline can help re-introduce students to their natural surroundings after a year of quarantines and reduced outdoor learning experiences. 

2020 was a challenge for everyone. We are hopeful that 2021 will see people reconnecting, getting outside, and engaging with their communities in hopeful, helpful learning about science and the environment.

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