Outdoor Education During the Pandemic: Expanding Our Virtual Horizons

Outdoor Education During the Pandemic: Expanding Our Virtual Horizons

Plaster casts of a bobcat track made in the Conservancy’s mammal class.

July 21, 2021

By Julie Sigourney, Conservancy Educator

2020 was a year of disruption, challenge and accomplishment for the Santa Lucia Conservancy’s Outdoor Education Program. The pandemic caused the sudden shut down of our live nature walks. Our last in-person class was on March 13, 2020 with a second grade class from Salinas, and we had to cancel the 48 remaining classes and events scheduled through May. Like everyone, we went through a brief lull struck by the question, “what now?”

At the end of March, I and my fellow Conservancy educator, Kirsten Stember, amended our plan for the season to create a virtual program with alternative activities to continue supporting our mission in environmental education. Instead of bringing students to the outdoors, we would bring the outdoors to students. 

Our first priority was to support and assist the teachers and students whose field trips were cancelled. We consulted with teachers from a cross section of grades and schools, asking how we could best help. Their feedback led us to create an extensive video library with many types of nature programming to replace each subject area that we teach as well as live nature walks over Zoom.  

We overcame a host of programmatic hurdles, including a lack of file storage, learning the technical aspects of making a video, and adapting a formerly live experience to be just as engaging virtually. It was rough at first, but we figured it out.  

In 2020, Kirsten and I produced 27 videos for pre-K through adult viewers, with over 3,500 views to date (not including Youtube views), and taught a total of 117 classes. Subjects included mammals, birds, owls, bugs and butterflies, habitats, Native American history, redwoods, sketching and poetry, and oaks. With financial assistance from the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy (CRWC) in the fall, we also created a thorough video covering specifically the natural resources and complicated human impacts on the Carmel River Watershed. Additionally, we produced “read-along” videos with picture books in natural landscapes for our youngest children, as well as “nature mysteries.”

The most unexpected outcome of our virtual programming was the enthusiastic response to our virtual nature walks. Connecting with our students and showing them, in real time, what we observed as we walked along the trails proved to be even more impactful than our typical in-person nature walks. 

Kirsten and I provided a connection with nature to children, parents, and teachers at a time when it was most needed and least accessible, allowing us to engage students in a manner unlike any other online experience available to them. Teachers uniformly expressed their gratitude for the respite from their remote teaching, and noted how much it felt like actually being with us on The Preserve. They loved the sights and sounds of nature that we brought them and relished the continuity of being with us in a familiar place. 

“In all of your field trips, no matter if it’s on zoom or in the Santa Lucia Preserve, it’s fun, interesting, and it’s always a pleasure to see you two,” said Lyric, a 4th grader. “I’m always excited to come to your field trips (or watch them from home) because they make you forget you’re learning.”

Word quickly spread among teachers, and to accommodate the demand, Kirsten and I have been teaching more classes each week (10 on average) during the pandemic than we had in our previous 21 years of leading the Conservancy’s Outdoor Education Program.

In 2021, we revised the virtual program as hybrid teaching went into effect and we taught kids via Zoom both in class and at home. We improved or replaced some of our spring videos and increased the interactive portion of our program. Kirsten and I introduced the subject of each class with a pre-recorded video to show students what we can see on the trail, and then the live Zoom portion focused on discussion and active discovery. We taught a total of 78 classes in the spring. 

After classes, we received an outpouring of thank you letters from teachers, parents, and students who were grateful for the opportunity to continue learning about our wild landscapes at a time when many outdoor education programs have reduced their capacity. 

“The kids were so engaged. I don’t know if you could tell over Zoom but they were really taking in all of the sights and information,” said Sarah Maloney, a Transitional Kindergarten teacher at Carmelo School. “Their tree pictures really got them involved. A few of them drew every single animal you introduced…  Thank you so much for that adventure and all of your wonderful videos!”

While outdoor education is always best when experienced with all the senses, virtual learning did offer unique advantages. We were able to show the students so much more in videos than we can when they are sitting with us in person and we took advantage of this to expand the geographic reach of our videos. For example, we “traveled” all over Carmel Valley to learn about the Carmel River Watershed. Further, the children were able to see small things up-close, like the inside of a flower or a tiny insect. We were able to teach when inclement weather would cause us to cancel or reschedule in-person classes. Each student had a turn to speak with the muting feature on Zoom. They could more easily draw or take notes during the class, which is difficult to do in the field.

Public, private, and charter schools pre-K through fifth grade in Carmel, Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Salinas School Districts participated in our Covid-era program. In 2020 we taught 50 classes from underprivileged schools making up 43% of our students. In sum, we reached more children through remote teaching than possible in live classes and we reached new groups, expanding our education efforts further than we could have imagined. 

Kirsten and I are thrilled to have had the opportunity to serve our teachers and students in this new, experimental, and unexpected way. It has been both the most stressful and the most rewarding experience in our time at the Santa Lucia Conservancy and we couldn’t be happier with the result.