Commentary: Program brings hands-on science education home

By Isabella Eclipse

In spring, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center campus comes alive. Snow thaws, peeper frogs start calling, and troops of schoolchildren descend on campus to get their hands dirty and experience science in the field. For some, this could be the first time they’ve seen the Chesapeake Bay, walked through a forest or spent time in nature.

Isabella Eclipse

This year, the pandemic forced schools to close, and SERC had to cancel all its spring and summer programs. However, thanks to the efforts of the SERC education team, the pandemic hasn’t stopped science education, just changed it. Karen McDonald, SERC’s education specialist, has worked with staff, interns and a dedicated volunteer team developing virtual programs that bring SERC science into the homes of eager learners, from elementary students to adults.

Earlier this year, SERC offered a three-day virtual home-school course on river otters for fourth through seventh graders. Students attended class through Zoom and sent in their “homework” — food webs and otter diagrams — using Google Classroom. Encouraged by the success of this short program, the education team developed a four-week course called “The Science of Biodiversity” for middle school students. SERC also created a Summer Science Series for the public and several workshops and certificate programs for teachers looking for professional development during the pandemic.

As Delaware schools prepare once again for virtual learning, science teachers can be left in a particular lurch: How can they make science and nature come alive, when they can’t lead hands-on activities for their students? The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is here to help.

Adapting an outdoor curriculum, which is inherently hands-on and experiential, has been challenging, McDonald acknowledged.

“We’re having to be very creative about how to conduct hands-on science in meaningful ways, virtually,” she said.

Charlie Schmidt, a student in SERC’s virtual river otter class, poses with his poster presentation. (Photo courtesy of the Schmidt Family)

One way to engage students is to encourage them to take a break from the computer screen and rediscover nature in their own backyards and neighborhoods.

“I think, especially since everyone is home right now, it really gives us an opportunity to connect to a sense of place and the environment around us,” explained science education intern Samina Soin-Voshell.

Soin-Voshell helped lead middle schoolers in the virtual home-school course through a “bioblitz” survey. The exercise challenged the students to catalog every living species they could find outside in 20 minutes. The students had fun, while learning critical science skills, like analyzing data and identifying trends.

Despite the challenges of online learning, McDonald believes science education will ultimately be all the better for it.

“We can reach different audiences, which is exciting,” she said. “Places that we’ve never taken SERC science, we can now go.”

To learn more about SERC’s education programs, visit serc.si.edu/education. Here’s the link for the virtual field trips: serc.si.edu/education/virtual-field-trips-talks.

Isabella Eclipse was a summer science writing intern at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on the Chesapeake Bay in Edgewater, Maryland. She is a junior at Cornell University, studying the environment and sustainability. This commentary was originally published by Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.