Share ideas - How to virtually engage students in EE | NAAEE

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Share ideas - How to virtually engage students in EE

Let's use this discussion thread to share ideas on how to engage students in environmental education and environmental science with a virtual platform.

I teach 7th grade environmental science and often take my students outside for labs and demonstrations. However, with Covid, I am gearing up for continued online learning next year, knowing that school will probably be a blend of in-person and distance learning. Some of my students live in apartments and their parents will not let them go outside!
How can we immerse students in nature when they can't be outside? What tools are you finding effective?

Please share your thoughts!

I've been thinking about this a lot lately too, Sheri. I run the K-12 field trip programs at a scientific field station in Minnesota, and am grappling with finding ways to replicate the outdoor learning experience for students without access to nature when we can't hold visits onsite. The most 'immersive' thing I've come up with thus far is a series of virtual tours of one section of the field station. I built them in Google Tour Creator - you can click through the spring ( and summer ( 'hikes' right now, and hopefully fall and winter will be done soon too. They are a poor substitute for the real deal, but do an adequate job of making you feel like you are 'there'.

We've also been building content-heavy ArcGIS StoryMaps (like this one about biomes and habitats: that could have worksheets or quizzes attached, and video series about what's going on in our neck of the woods (this one, Tales of Cedar Creek, is aimed at younger students than yours but maybe could serve as inspiration? or Maybe some combo of virtual tours created by you or others, videos you take of yourself doing some of the demos and labs you normally run, or an ongoing series with a theme would work?

Hope that helps. If you'd like to talk through how we built any of the examples I mentioned, feel free to email me at It's all a work in progress, obviously!!

Hi Sheri and Caitlin, thanks so much for this important conversation. I've been working on imagining a vision for Post-COVID global education and think that one of the most important things is that we engage kids with out of door exploration and exercise, whether in school or homeschooling. The creativity and interaction with the natural can not only support meaningful learning but will help with 'cabin-fever' of many kids.

Caitlin, These examples are really wonderful! I love all of the different ways you have represented data. and information on the story board. I appreciate your creativity in finding ways to connect with students from a distance and keep them engaged in learning about nature.

Sheri, this is a great thread for discussion. I work as a museum educator and lots of museums, especially natural history museums or citizen science projects, offer educational opportunities--many for free and virtually. These can include videos, online activities, data collecting and virtual 3D objects that range from fossils to fungi. We just started creating videos for the P-12 audience on wetlands, prairies and spring/summer happenings
( Like Caitlin's program, we focus more on our local areas. Many of these organizations align their content to fulfill educational standards (NGSS) or for individual state standards.

I believe one of the best ways to engage in nature is to see it up close with a microscope. Using their phones, parents and children can learn so much at their fingertips by taking a picture and magnifying it (in place of a microscope) for surface detail.

If children are allowed to go out to their apartment sidewalks and courtyards, you can do great sampling activities to determine the kinds of living organisms in a given quadrat from as small as a foot square to the size of their neighborhood. I taught in inner city and there is so much to study in urban ecology, even from your balcony.

Have you thought about microcosms? By collecting a sample of a still natural water system (in a mason jar or peanut butter jar with a lid) and including the decaying, organic material, a plant and a stick or twigs surrounding it, and putting the jar in front of a light source, we can observe energy flow and matter cycling. Ditches (an example of a disturbed system) that usually contain standing water are great places for collection sites. I have two in my kitchen window now that I started in spring with my students. They can last a long time; our museum has one dating back to 1964. These closed systems offer ongoing activities to connect to the larger closed system, the Earth.

Finally, some local grant foundations are offering ongoing funding opportunities to teachers for fall. This might be a way to offer "science kits" for children to use at home with a few items to conduct investigations when away from school. Just a thought.

Kudos to you and all the educators out there in the formal and informal settings planning to create the best learning opportunities for their future students. I admire all of you.

Hi everyone! Pre-COVID I was working with a team of local teachers who moonlight as VR Tour creators. They've made some amazing virtual reality tours using 360 degree photos and embedding content - including quizzes and required responses to elements. We were working on a tour of a local farm that their students come out to for in-person field trips normally, but with the restrictions of COVID we are anticipating that it's a resource we can use to help provide some of the content digitally. A tech savvy person with the right equipment could make their own of these, but these guys are passionate about education and have made all the tours on their website free to the public - so you could use them too. You might have to contact them if you wanted to use the tours that have actual assignments embedded since they report student responses via Google Classroom I believe. A lot of the tours are interactive but don't have the embedded assignments so you could just interact with them and create your own assignments. As you can see, there are some nationwide topics and others that are local to Michigan, where we're located. We have used these tours as pre/post activities for field trips to these places, and one tour (the Rabbit River one if you look at the site) has all student created content. What I've been thinking about a lot is how to frame something like this as a reason for kids to get outside and explore their own community - Virtual tours are great, but they don't provide nearly the same experience or engender nearly the same emotions as an in-person interaction with nature.

I understand you want virtual or distance learning. There are ways to engage children outdoors to experience nature in their own yard or neighborhood. I lead "Nature Detectives" an outdoor experience program in Sacramento, CA that started as a weekly after school program. As I developed the program, I created a lot of activities and resources that children can do at home in their backyard. My concept is that they discover the outdoor world where ever they are. They "Walk the Alphabet trail" looking for letter shapes in nature - the Y and W in trees, the O in flower blooms, X, J, and so many more. This focuses their attention and helps them become better observers of nature. We also do another fun activity, I call "Habitat High Rise." We find what grows on the ground. What grows as tall as our knees, our shoulders and above our head. Then Nature Detectives draw what they see in their Discovery Journals. Their handmade journals are the foundation of the program. Easy to make using 8 1/2 x 11 blank sheets of paper with colored card stock covers - bound with ribbon or staples. Kids LOVE them and it becomes their tool for recording evidence they find, drawing, questions. I have lots of activity sheets, blogs that reinforce the activities we do. I created a handout of "Naturealist" skills that present a variety of tasks that build skills. Also feature 2 new books for self-discovery and journaling on my website and Amazon end of June. "What Song does the Rain Sing?" A creative writing and exploration journal. And "Inspired by John Muir" Learn about his life and explore the outdoors on their own. Visit to read more about my program, blogs, products, and resources. I am working on a leader training model for organizations just getting started and need easy, inexpensive and engaging programming.

Nature Detectives, discovery journals, journals, nature, writing, drawing
Nature Detectives Discovery Journals
naturalist, skills, mapping, observation, measurement, identification, safety
Naturalist Skills
alphabet, trail, walk, observation, letters
Walk the Alphabet Trail
Nature Detectives, tree, habitat, observation, journals, outdoors, nature, educatoin
Trees as Habitat Observation

This is terrific, thanks so much for sharing! Earth Child Institute is also hosting a 'Seeds for Students' project, sending seeds and a lesson plan for all who want to engage children to plant while at home and then bring the seedlings back to school (hopefully) and start a kitchen garden with classmates. In Jersey City, NJ, the project is distributing seeds through a community garden and local educators and parents.

Our priority has always been, and continues to be, to get children outside, learning. We developed an approach to teaching and learning outdoors called The Compass to Nature, which includes place, phenology, journals, naturalists, and the sense of wonder. For COVID, we adapted our standard curriculum to synchronous (live) Zoom sessions which center around outdoor time led by the teacher at school on the school grounds or in yards if children are at home. For those who cannot go outside, we ask them to sit by a window to make their observations or search in the home for items to help them. For example, in a recent Zoom session with 3rd graders on seeds, most students searched for seeds in their yards while those who could not go outside searched for seeds it their kitchen (spices, nuts, oatmeal, etc.)

File Sample virtual lesson plan 4th Grade Fall Land Insects14.74 KB