When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many outdoor educators found themselves needing to quickly adapt to online programming. It was no different for the naturalists at the Environmental Science Center in Burien, where I work. How will we continue to get students out on the beach with online learning? How will our beach field trips translate to a virtual space? By the time our beach season started, many teachers and students were pretty burnt out on using Zoom, Teams, or Google Meets. Some schools were even preparing to return to the classroom or were using a hybrid model. We had to design a program that could adapt to a variety of scenarios and use the virtual space in a way that would be interactive and exciting. After much research, the Environmental Science Center was able to acquire equipment that would allow us to do live virtual field trips on the beach. Here, I will briefly explain the equipment set up used on the beach and then I will go into some teaching strategies I use to engage kindergarten through second grade students in exploring the environment virtually. Here is a list of the equipment we used and a picture of how we set up it.
- iPad – used for accessing Zoom or other apps for streaming live video to virtual classrooms.
- Bluetooth headset – used for audio.
- Signal booster – strengthens data connection for streaming live video and audio.
- Tripod – used to keep the booster elevated.
- Metal shield – prevents feedback from booster.
- Battery – powers booster.
- Plastic container – keeps booster box and battery protected from weather.
- Wagon – used to carry the equipment
While this set up may seem high tech to some, including myself, the reality is that our naturalists look a little funny when we are out on the beach with this stuff. There was a steep learning curve to using this equipment, especially out in the elements. For example, we quickly learned that it is crucial to have a furry cover on the microphone to reduce wind noise. Also, there are a lot of not-so-high-tech parts of our equipment, like the reusable bag that we fill with rocks and tie to the booster tripod to keep it from blowing over in the wind. An important member of our team is the virtual naturalist who joins us in the virtual classroom from the comfort of their home. They are there with fun videos of marine life and slides with pictures for when the naturalists out in the field need to transition to a new spot or in case they do lose connection.
Now that I have explained the technical aspects of doing live virtual field trips on the beach, you are probably still wondering how we could possibly teach a program over Zoom that once relied almost completely on the students themselves to make discoveries, ask questions, and investigate marine life. There are a few teaching strategies that I lean on when teaching virtually.
First and foremost, I try to constantly remind myself that this field trip is about the students and what they are interested in exploring. I start by asking them what they hope to see on the beach during their virtual field trip. Then, I try to make it feel like they are out on the beach with me by including some narrative of what I am thinking and experiencing in the environment. I orient them to where we are by giving a land acknowledgement, showing them a wide shot of the Whispering Rocks, and describing the condition of the tide. Throughout the field trip, I allow myself to be interrupted by exciting nature moments like seagulls eating clams and herons catching fish.
One teaching method I think enhances virtual learning is using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) (Connolly et al., 2019). These are questions originally developed for engaging people in discussing paintings in art museums. More recently, they have been applied to doing science at places like the Seattle Aquarium. In VTS, the essential questions are as follows:
- What do you notice?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- What more can we find?
I aim the iPad at a rock covered in marine life such as barnacles, mussels, limpets, chitons, or seaweed, and I pose the first question by asking students to use their science goggles to make observations. Students share what they notice, and I follow up with the second and third questions, occasionally making other connections. What I like about using the first two questions is that they give the educator a way to prompt students to share, and then asks them to expand on their ideas without placing a value judgement on their observation. I think this works especially well in this context because, I think we can all agree, marine animals can look strange! Students make a lot of observations that, to me, seem completely out of left field. An example is, one time I was showing a crab molt (empty crab shell that a crab has outgrown) and a student said, “it looks like chicken!” I asked, “What do you see that makes you say that it looks like chicken?” The student then went on to explain that the white parts look like chicken bones, and I was able to make connections to how the skeleton of the crab is on the outside of its body unlike a chicken that has its skeleton on the inside, and that is why a crab must molt.
Another way I can follow up initial observations is by using my other senses to collect evidence for them since they cannot be in field with me. I frequently show them how to use sense of smell to differentiate between a crab molt and a truly dead crab. I engage the whole class in making a prediction by using the thumb-o-meter to share if they think a dead crab would be more stinky than an empty shell. Sometimes it can be difficult to describe or make connections with sea cucumbers or anemones, so I offer to touch them. I ask the whole class if they think it will be hard or squishy and then describe what I feel to them. If the animal reacts to my touch, then the students can also see how the animal moves. When students’ observations are conflicting or imply something incorrect you can use this method to help them draw their own conclusions based on evidence. It also gives me the opportunity to model and narrate stewardship practices on the beach by getting my fingers wet before touch gently.
Creating an interactive experience in the virtual space can be challenging, especially out in the field. By utilizing the equipment, we can be mobile in the environment and use VTS to activate students’ prior knowledge to help them make sense of what they are seeing. These teaching methods helped me maintain a student-centered learning experience when our program went virtual, and I hope they can help others do the same.
Connolly, T., Skinner, R., & Harlow, D. (2019). Sparking Discussion Visual Thinking. Science and
Children, 57(4), 44-49.