Tools of the trade: Virtual environmental education
Environmental educators at the Department of Natural Resources depend on the outdoors to share our passion and love for Maryland’s flora and fauna with our constituents. Some of the important services we provide to Marylanders include providing field experiences for schoolchildren, coordinating the Become a Woman of the Outdoors program, training master naturalists and teachers, as well as providing a environmental education in our state parks.
So what did MNR’s environmental educators do in March 2020 when they realized they wouldn’t be able to help Maryland students and adults explore the environment in person? Answer: adapt quickly to teach adults and students virtually. Educators have learned to use various online learning platforms, some of which were previously unknown, including Zoom, the Google suite, Nearpod, Mentimeter, Padlet, and YouTube.
During the pandemic, educators from MNR’s Wildlife and Heritage Department presented more than 147 programs reaching more than 6,700 voters. They’ve created over 63 professional development workshops that have taught Maryland residents a wide range of topics, from the benefits of native plants to how to attract pollinators to your garden. They have also created a plethora of online resources and webinars that have enabled educators inside and outside of MNR to reach many new audiences across the state.
Additionally, Maryland Park Service staff have produced over 30 Virtual Ranger Experience videos since 2020. These short, three-minute video clips have been produced in the field by state park staff on a variety of topics, including ranging from virtual scales to fairy tales. programs with live animals, tours of the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center and fascinating discoveries about the history, flora and fauna of our public lands. These popular videos were regularly promoted on social media and were a new way to connect with state parks during the pandemic. But more than just entertaining, these videos have been helpful in enhancing virtual education. All Virtual Ranger Experience videos are still available on the MNR YouTube channel, accessible through the ministry website.
Realizing that people were spending extra and unplanned time at home, both indoors and outdoors, the Park Service developed a way to connect the public to essential nature and stewardship at home. . The Park Service has launched a new program called “Create Your Own State Park,” encouraging families to turn their homes or yards of any size into their own state parks. This is accomplished through a variety of different activities, from identifying plants or trees already there to creating a campsite or picnic area.
This program was an ideal way to connect families to nearby nature experiences, encourage home conservation, and help expand native habitats for wildlife.
With the support of an MNR grant, schools in Carolina County were able to partner with the Pickering Creek Audubon Center, through which experts at the center were able to train teachers in environmental and earth and earth sciences. US government through virtual platforms and site visits. Outdoor virtual learning videos and investigative activities have been created to enhance student learning, and program material has also been translated into Spanish. This work continues at the secondary level to improve the county’s environmental literacy plan.
Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, environmental educators and MNR park rangers have strived to continue educating Marylanders about the importance of preserving and protecting our vital natural resources. What has been learned from this experience will be used in the future. MNR educators will continue to reach new audiences virtually through online webinars and training videos via online platforms when staff cannot be present in person.
Amy S. Henry is a conservation education specialist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Chesapeake and Coastal Service. The article appears in vol. 24, issue 4 of Maryland Natural Resource magazine, fall 2021.