The bright side of a virtual field trip? You don’t get wet.
It was raining hard at Northwest Trek one November morning as Wildlife Champions instructor Megan Soland peered into a video camera. Fellow instructor Liz Hines held an umbrella over her, getting soaked herself, and in front was keeper Wendi Mello, dripping wet but smiling cheerfully.
“So you can see Rainier and Ahma behind me, our two wonderful wolverines here at Northwest Trek,” Mello began.
She tossed a meatball, and Ahma gobbled it up. Rainier scurried over a log, cream stripe wiggling on his thick black fur. “They’re incredibly well adapted for living in cold climates.”
Just then Rainier got a little too close, and Ahma snapped. Rainier mock-growled, the two bared teeth – then returned peacefully to the meatballs.
“Wow, did you see that?!” marveled Mello. “That’s so cool.”
It was day one of filming the Northwest Trek edition of Virtual Wildlife Champions, and already there was plenty of animal action.
Taking Wildlife Science Online
“As soon as Tacoma Public Schools announced that learning was online, we immediately started planning how to create Wildlife Champions lessons that could bring nature science to students and teachers virtually,” explains Soland.
Wildlife Champions is now in its third year, a pioneering science curriculum that has getting outside and empathy for nature at its core. A grant-funded partnership between Metro Parks Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools, the curriculum has been co-developed with teachers by staff at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Northwest Trek for students at Arlington Elementary on Tacoma’s south side.
For the last two years, they’ve taught daily at the school, co-leading classes with teachers and rotating between classroom, school yard and nearby Oak Tree Park, with seasonal field trips to the Zoo and Northwest Trek.
But this year, Covid-19 restrictions changed everything.
“Students are all learning from home, so we are turning all our lessons into videos that teachers can use or students can watch at home, doing the activities in their back yard or park,” says Hines.
Plants, Animals, Activities
The October lessons, for instance, feature Zoo youth volunteers Enjoli Shaw and Logan Cornwell in local parks highlighting where they are in Tacoma’s neighborhoods. November’s lesson has Hines and Soland encouraging students to send selfie shots of themselves spotting nature items in their local park, with free Zoo tickets as a reward.
The pair have also made videos of nature activities like making a windsock or a home for a beetle or slug, filming these in the Zoo’s preschool room with its massive forest murals.
“We work together to connect students with the lessons and make them interactive and fun,” explained Hines.
In December, Arlington students had been originally scheduled to come to Northwest Trek for a field trip – a hugely popular event last year. Instead, Hines and Soland were filming it for them, complete with keepers, education staff and animals.
“This is for a third-grade lesson; they’re studying climate and biomes,” Soland advised Mello, before hitting record.
With practiced ease and clear passion for wolverines, Mello began pointing out sharp claws for digging in snow, teeth for gnawing frozen carcasses, wide paws and thick fur for making the snow dens that these rare animals need to survive.
Behind her, Ahma and Rainier stole the show, unfazed by the rain.
Equally rain-happy were the mallard ducks, whom Mello introduced to the Arlington first-graders along with their wet-weather adaptations like webbed feet and wide bills.
With education curator Jessica Moore as the talent, Soland and Hines also made videos featuring raccoons (second grade) and badgers (fourth grade), with a long list of other animals from eagles and bears to banana slug.
Watching Wildlife at Home
And while it’s a little early for either the Zoo team or Arlington teachers to know just how their kids are engaging with Virtual Wildlife Champions, the feedback so far is encouraging.
“Annabelle really enjoys making her science journal, and loved Animal Observation Day,” says Sheena Adamson, Arlington’s site coordinator, whose daughter is in kindergarten. “The neighbor’s cat was visiting and she told me, ‘Mom, I have to observe Bella!’ I also love the social-emotional aspect, how (Soland and Hines) always check in with how students are feeling.”
“Kaylieyah enjoys learning about the solar system and animals,” said another parent of their fifth-grader. “She’s enjoyed the program so far and learned new things, and would like more videos.”
“Taking Wildlife Champions virtual has been hard, because you don’t get that immediate feedback from students and teachers about what’s working,” says Hines. “I miss the kids a ton!”
“And I miss seeing the progress they make throughout the year,” adds Soland. “Seeing them learn things and become fluent in empathy and science.”
On the student side, some families began the year without access to technology or internet connections, although grants have now enabled the district to give those to everyone.
But while everyone will be happy to get back to learning in-person, the virtual lessons have at least continued Arlington’s nature science program while building up a resource library for years to come.
“We’re hoping it will be a good resource for teachers in the long run, to refresh their knowledge or use in the classroom,” Soland explains. “And we hope it will help with the longevity of the program itself, and even exporting it to other schools and districts in the future.”