New colleagues, new friends, new collaborations, and new educational materials!
Can you imagine building new friendships in 2020? Well three educators did just that through ecological virtual hikes!
In response to the academic shutdown caused by COVID-19 pandemic, the Organization of Biological Field Stations (OBFS) requested members to come together to discuss how field stations could support educators who were looking for ways to teach field ecology and methods remotely. Consisting of over 200 field stations around the world with the majority of them located in North America, the OBFS network leveraged its members’ ecological knowledge and geographical locations as a way of creating something that would showcase the diversity of ecosystems in a unique and collaborative way.
While some field stations had limited capacity and resources to translate their in-person educational experiences online, a few were able to improvise and create virtual field experiences for the many students who were no longer permitted to visit and learn about the ecology at these unique sites. In the winter and spring quarters of 2020, Associate Director for Environmental Education, Jorge Ramos, and Professor of Biology Rodolfo Dirzo co-taught a course on the Ecology and the Natural History of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, a biological preserve owned by Stanford University. Having to pivot their winter quarter final exam materials to an online format, Jorge decided to go outside and video record multiple three-minute silent short hikes in several parts of Jasper Ridge, including one at the Searsville Dam (Fig. 1). Using just his iPhone, he was able to showcase the unique plants and other ecological features of this particular location. Students watched the video and responded by constructing their own narrated tour of Jasper Ridge, prompting them to learn how to make scientific observations, lead virtual educational tours, while at the same time enjoy the natural sights and sounds of a place they were never able to visit.
Figure 1. Screenshot of Searsville Dam at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve as seen in one of Jorge’s videos and Benjamin Bravo at the Fairfield Osborn Preserve (photo credit Kerry Wininger).
Benjamin Bravo, the Preserve Resources Manager at Sonoma State University’s Center for Environmental Inquiry (SSU-CEI), along with the educational staff, transitioned many of their public events and classes to a virtual platform. Striving to connect the public with wildlife and nature, Benjamin created nine short videos from camera trap photos and led two public events on camera traps (Fig. 1). Once COVID-19 field measures were developed in the summer of 2020, Benjamin, Andy Balestracci, and two SSU student stewards removed over two hectares of yellow star-thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), and other invasive plants from the preserves.
More than 3,000 miles away, Angie Patterson, Master Science Educator at Black Rock Forest (BRF), brought a slice of the forest to K-12 classrooms by video recording forest ecology lessons and mindfulness hikes in order to show students the activities they would have done during a typical visit to the forest. Using her cell phone, Angie storyboarded and recorded a video lesson on vernal pools for a Field Biology class for high school students. In the video, a BRF environmental educator walks students through techniques for surveying salamanders and explains how this data could help make broader conclusions about the health of a vernal pool habitat. Since that first video was uploaded to Black Rock Forest’s YouTube channel, she has directed, filmed, and produced over 10 forest ecology lessons, 6 virtual hikes, 7 silent habitat walkthroughs, and 2 videos showcasing the research happening within the forest (Fig 2).
Figure 2. Example of one of many Angie Patterson’s educational habitat walkthroughs.
Interestingly, none of us knew what would happen within the next few months, but the paths that each of us had taken in the past, would cross over and connect us all in a very special way.
Through weekly OBFS meetings and terrestrial habitat working group conversations (co-led by us three), we learned that Benjamin was a former Jasper Ridge Bike Ranger and alumnus of the same Ecology and Natural History course Jorge co-teaches back in 2014 (Fig. 3). Angie had participated in many Ecological Society of America (ESA) meetings and like Jorge, was a SEEDS mentor whose career trajectory as an outdoor environmental educator aligned with Jorge’s career. Similarly, we were eager to discuss how we pivoted in the age of COVID-19 by sharing our ideas and online content at the OBFS meetings. Jorge shared his course’s final exam video as an example of what OBFS members could do at their sites. Angie shared her first attempt at filming a silent habitat walkthrough and showcased how she drew attention to unique ecological processes in her videos and the annotation style that could be added post-production for inclusion in video content guides (Fig. 3). Benjamin’s previous research and educational experiences in many preserves, excellent digital creative ideas, and unmatched program management and organizational skills kept us all aligned with the goals set forth by the OBFS working group.
Figure 3. Benjamin Bravo as a Jasper Ridge bike ranger back in 2014 and Angie Patterson performing ecological research methods at Black Rock Forest.
For several weeks, OBFS members brainstormed ways the network could support educators who were struggling to find a way to teach field ecology remotely. Eventually, a proposal to build the infrastructure necessary to create video and live science events was submitted to the National Science Foundation and a RAPID grant and was awarded: “RAPID: The Virtual Field: Educational mitigation for the Covid-19 Pandemic”. The project’s outcome resulted in the development of an online video repository of field-based virtual experiences that would help instructors teach students to learn about all aspects of ecology as part of their distance-learning curriculum: The Virtual Field.
The Virtual Field (VF) website hosts Ecosystem Exploration (EE) videos and a schedule of “Live from the Field” online events from field stations, marine laboratories and other research or educational institutions around the world (Fig 4). The Ecosystem Exploration videos consists of silent video hikes through an ecosystem with two online educational guides; one for the instructor and one for the students, as well as a video content guide. The VF website currently hosts 10 videos from diverse habitats in California, Gulf of Maine, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and from one field station in Mexico. These videos have been through the video production process, which includes the supplementation of instructor guides, video uploading to the OBFS YouTube Channel, and metadata management that enables searchability on the website. The “Live from the Field” events consist of three 8 minute pre-recorded videos from managers or researchers from three different field stations about their careers and their research areas. The event is broadcasted live via Zoom where field station guests answer questions from the student audience. The topics covered so far include Fire Across the Continent and Harmful Algal Blooms. A new Live from the Field event on November 9, will cover the topic of nutrient cycling in grasslands with researchers from Argentina, Colorado, and New Mexico. All of these virtual experiences are accompanied with educational resources guided by the leadership of Undergraduate Field Experiences Research Network (UFERN) and follows ESA’s Four-Dimensional Ecological Education Framework (4DEE). These collaborative virtual projects teach field skills, such as observation, communication, and critical thinking. All of us have designed the associated instructional materials for university faculty and are currently being adapted for students of all ages and disciplines.
Figure 4.The Virtual Field website hosts Ecosystem Exploration (EE) videos and a schedule of “Live from the Field” events from biological field stations.
These past months have not been easy. The year 2020 has been marked with many harsh realities, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, obvious violence and injustices against the Black community and systemic racism, the effects of climate change exacerbating heat waves, fire frequency, size and intensity in California, etc. Throughout these months, the three of us kept working our daily jobs, kept contributing to the OBFS Virtual Field project, while at the same time, continuing to build friendship, support, and advocacy for one another! This experience allowed us to develop new educational skills with new technologies, polish our science communication skills through different multimedia, and continue to diversify and build inclusive field experiences -indoors and outdoors- for the future generation of ecologists. Now, go on a virtual hike, with our ecosystem exploration videos and stay tuned for more coming soon!
Angie Patterson, M.S., M.Phil, Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, and Master Science Educator at Black Rock Forest
Benjamin Bravo, B.S., M.S., Preserve Resources Manager, Center for Environmental Inquiry, Sonoma State University
Jorge Ramos, Ph.D., Associate Director for Environmental Education, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, Stanford University