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How Shaver’s Creek replicated outdoor learning experiences online

“Weather Watchers” was one of the “take-away nature activities” created by the students of RPTM 430: Environmental Education Methods and Materials. Photo courtesy of Shaver’s Creek.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced educators at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center to teach school-aged children about the environment without fully immersing them in it.

Lucy McClain, assistant professor at Shaver’s Creek, co-authored a scholarly paper about her experiences in 2020 and 2021 redesigning environmental education curricula for online use. The article was published in February in Environmental Education Research.

McClain said it’s difficult to replicate authentic outdoor learning experiences online, but Penn State students in his environmental education class, RPTM 430: Environmental Education Methods and Materials, have developed learning materials, lesson plans and a suite of programs that met the need and showed promise.

“Environmental education is best done in an outdoor space, and you explore things in a group,” said McClain, who has partnered with educators through the North American Association for Environmental Education to move to distance or hybrid programs in an effort to maintain their usual guidelines of excellence. “When you’re learning remotely or online, you can’t do that. It’s really hard to change.

McClain and his students have created spring 2020 “take-away nature activities” for families and teachers.

For example, “Backyard Birdwatch” is aimed at fourth graders and focuses on how birds use their beaks. A coloring book featuring butterflies includes 17 families of insects found in Pennsylvania.

“It’s about gaining experience teaching and teaching in an authentic environment, so how do you replicate that?” McClain said. “But you can create solo adventures. Turn off our cameras, go out and collect evidence, find out your whereabouts. We encouraged students to look for things where they were.

McClain said the programming also emphasizes community exploration, not just the outdoors.

“We focus our educational programs at Shaver’s Creek on people who live in our communities, but these resources allow us to reach deeper into their communities,” she said.

Tyler Kauffman, who graduated in 2021 and is now an intern at Shaver’s Creek, was a student in McClain’s class in the spring of 2020. He specifically worked on a weather diary project for “Nature Activities to Go,” and said that the whole experience had opened his eyes to a new realm of possibilities for environmental education.

Chloe Kalp was in McClain’s class in the spring 2021 semester and taught local elementary students over Zoom. She said she knew connecting with the students would be a challenge, but the group was able to accomplish that. For one activity, they had the children find something bumpy and write about it in nature journals.

“You could see in the kids’ eyes that they understood what we were saying, or that they liked what we were doing, and they really caught on pretty quickly,” Kalp said.

Kalp also said the students’ teachers were an essential part of their education. Teachers have helped their students in person, such as helping them show off the work they’ve done on camera so everyone on Zoom can see it.

“You can do environmental education online – it doesn’t have to be in person only,” she said. “It was really cool to see that we made this come together.”

Visit the Shaver’s Creek website to learn more about the Penn State Outdoor Education Field Lab and Nature Center. Shaver’s Creek is a Penn State outreach service.