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Outdoor Education in the Age of Covid-19

This fall, I began working with the Director of Mitigation and Land Management at Sequoia Riverlands Trust (SRT) as a GrizzlyCorps Fellow. So far, my time in Visalia has been enlightening—as a Bay Area native and recent Central Coast inhabitant, the San Joaquin Valley is unlike any other part of the golden state. It’s at the crossroads between urban and rural, with cities like Fresno and Visalia ballooning in size every year, while outside these cities hundreds of square miles are dominated by fields of cotton and corn, roaming cattle, and rows upon rows of trees bearing oranges, pistachios, almonds and more. An agricultural mecca, the Central Valley holds some of the most productive farmland in the world. As more Californians move from the coast to the valley and demand for fertile soil increases, a competition is created for land that leaves little room for open space. This is where SRT’s work in conservation and education becomes invaluable.

Earth Academy is an SRT education initiative aimed at getting more Tulare County high school students outside and interested in careers in the environmental field. For each module or lesson in Earth Academy, there is both classroom learning and a fieldtrip component where students visit SRT-owned preserves to apply their skills. Throughout the program, students are challenged to think critically about issues in agriculture, climate resilience, soil and water health, and land management, and to experience open space near their home. In Tulare County, virtually all open space is privately owned rangeland, making SRT preserves some of the only existing areas for outdoor recreation and exploration.

Earth Academy represents one of few opportunities these students may have to spend time in nature over the course of their schooling—let alone leave the grounds of their school—and in the age of Covid-19, outdoor learning is more important now than ever before.

* Three Monache High students learning how to take rangeland monitoring data using the LandPKS application at Blue Oak Ranch Preserve.

So far, I have worked with students on two of eight Earth Academy modules: Soil and Grazing Management, and Changing Ecosystems. Field trips for these lessons took place throughout winter and early spring as we were seeing new highs for case numbers in the valley. As a result, SRT’s education team was dealing with rescheduling due to stay-at-home orders, and making sure students had transportation to and from our preserves. These issues of logistics were, I think, symbolic of the greater challenges in teaching during a pandemic. Every student’s household is different. There are differences in the technology and resources available, internet access and speed, caretakers in the home, quiet space to focus, and even food to eat. These disparities create a disruption in learning for many students, and long hours chained to the computer is causing stress for them, their families, and their teachers.

In the end, all of our field trips happened, and our students collected real, valuable data on the status of our preserves all while enjoying some time outside. The students I worked with were curious and excited about our preserves, asking thought provoking questions, finding interesting plants and birds and bugs, and enjoying the presence of their peers (masked and socially distant, of course). However, the turn-out for these field trips was not as high as a “normal” year. Some students felt that they had fallen so behind in their online classes that they couldn’t attend. Many of the students who did attend lamented that they could not spend more time with their friends, and that they were bored and frustrated with online learning. Two freshmen, new to the SRT program, told me that Earth Academy was the first high school field trip they had been on; they hadn’t even visited their own school campus.

Earth Academy is practicing place-based environmental education, which seeks to immerse students in their local landscapes and histories, matching what they learn in the classroom with real places and issues.

Place-based education (PBE) benefits both teachers and students—we know that a student who takes part in PBE outperforms their peers across disciplines, has increased engagement and motivation, increased self-esteem, and demonstrates a sense of community attachment.

Teachers taking part in PBE are more energized and engaged, more connected to the needs of their students and communities, and are empowered to develop new skills and advance their values. PBE is an antidote for the woes students and teachers are experiencing in the age of Covid-19. But intentional outdoor education is not just a solution for a pandemic year. I believe it is an answer to an increasingly digital yet disconnected world, a way of easing the stresses of modern educators and students, and fostering enthusiasm for learning. Students and our partner teachers choose to return to Earth Academy year after year—even in the midst of global crisis—because they want to experience a connection to the natural world and others, and learning outside is simply more fun. As Tulare County and others across the country move back towards in-person learning, I hope that we can incorporate more place-based outdoor learning for everyone’s benefit.

* Two Mission Oak High students counting the threatened Striped Adobe Lily at Lewis Hill Preserve.

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