Olympia’s Pacific Education Institute Helps Teachers Get Kids Outside During Pandemic with Outdoor Learning

2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges for educators and students as distance learning replaced live interaction. It’s a moment no one was prepared for but some, like Olympia nonprofit Pacific Education Institute (PEI), were able to quickly adapt. Long before COVID-19 forced the closure of schools across the state, PEI had developed flexible professional learning frameworks for teachers that can be adapted to any geographic region or grade level. FieldSTEM, their award-winning educational model, supports K-12 educators statewide in getting students outdoors to engage in locally relevant STEM learning. But as schools across the state began shutting down in March, a new challenge arose: how to take remote learning outside.

Once it became clear that schools were going virtual, PEI quickly converted their materials and training modules to an online format. That was the easy part, according to Megan Rivard, PEI’s Central Washington FieldSTEM coordinator. “Getting content online into a modality that’s simple to share with teachers was pretty straightforward,” says Rivard. “The challenge has been making sure that we’re keeping true to our mission and vision and getting people outside.”

As part of PEI’s model, educators experience the same lessons their students will as part of the training. When it came to applying that to remote learning, the solution was to begin with a check-in and then incorporate outdoor assignments that take place off-camera, followed by a debrief. “We still have the connections with nature happening,” says PEI Executive Director Kathryn Kurtz. “We’re instilling strategies for teachers to work with students in ways that allow them to take learning experiences outdoors.”

In this Invertebrate Investigation, a student studied an organism she could see (a roly poly, in this case) and compared it to a crustacean that would be found in a tide pool. Photo courtesy: Pacific Education Institute

One simple example is the Sit Spot, an activity that requires little to no additional materials, set up, or specialized knowledge, and can be adapted to any grade level. Sit Spots are places chosen by students where they can observe nature. Later, as part of the debrief, they can report on and record their observations. Sit Spots can be revisited over time or in different weather conditions, increasing observation skills while giving students authentic opportunities to engage in science and engineering practices.

PEI’s East Sound FieldSTEM Coordinator Molly Griffiths noticed that participants at two recent workshops for K-3 teachers responded positively to the concept. “Teachers commented on how these can be done from home, not just for science but also as a social and emotional learning (SEL) tool,” says Griffiths.

In another example, teachers in PEI’s coastal region recently learned how to facilitate a remote tidepool adventure. In this Invertebrate Investigation, students find and observe an animal in their yards or school grounds that has an analog in the tidepools. They then create a field guide page about the animal, complete with hand-drawn diagrams, based on their observations. “We used roly polys (a crustacean) but students could also look for slugs or snails (mollusks) worms, etc.,” says Coastal Region FieldSTEM Coordinator Julie Tennis.

Since March, PEI has conducted dozens of virtual workshops for 878 teachers in 125 school districts statewide, offering ways for teachers to get their students outside. Photo courtesy: Pacific Education Institute

Since March, PEI has conducted dozens of virtual workshops for 878 teachers from 125 school districts across Washington State. Demand has increased and some workshops have waiting lists. “I’ve definitely seen a higher attendance at our online workshops than I saw at our in-person ones,” says Rivard. “We’ve been able to add a few more because we’re not spending money on travel and hotels, so that’s a silver lining.”

PEI brings in community partners from the natural resources industry and conservation groups to help teachers explore ways to connect their students to potential career paths. Photo courtesy: Pacific Education Institute

Teacher response has been overwhelmingly positive, based on the surveys PEI does after every workshop. As one participant reported, “This was a great workshop that easily met the needs of multiple grade levels, answered many of my questions before I even knew I had them, and provided a powerful, easy-to-use tool during an unstable time in teaching and learning. I plan to use much of what I learned in this workshop to help [my teaching team] get their students outside for a screen break and a focused, fun, and engaging learning opportunity.”

Activities like this soil collection journal are ways for students to get outside and engage in meaningful scientific explorations while getting a break from screen time. Photo courtesy: Pacific Education Institute

As distance learning continues, PEI is exploring ways to bring in another key aspect of its educational model: community partners. Regional Coordinators connect conservation groups, natural resource companies and local Tribes with schools and districts in their areas to develop meaningful field experiences for students while providing opportunities to explore potential career paths. In the Shelton School District alone, for example, community partners include the Squaxin Island Tribe, the Skokomish Tribe, Mason Conservation District, Capitol Land Trust, Little Skookum Shellfish Growers, South Sound Salmon Enhancement Group, Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, Puget Sound Estuarium, and Pacific Shellfish Institute.

Many such groups have their own education and outreach specialists, Rivard notes. “Community-based organizations are going to be a very key piece in making sure that kids can get outdoors and get real-world experience,” she says, “because things are going to continue to look very different and it’s putting a lot of strain on our K-12 public education systems. Our informal educators have resources and materials that we really can’t do without, moving forward. Our community partners are going to be so important.”

For more information visit the Pacific Education Institute website or call 360.705.9292.

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