Fairmont students get virtual connection to nature
Since its inception in 2009, the Solano Resource Conservation District (RCD) has brought sixth-graders from throughout Solano County to the Suisun Marsh for hands-on activities teaching them about the biodiversity of their regional watershed.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Watershed Education Program has been unable to host field trips at the marsh. However, that has not stopped Solano RCD educators from giving students lessons on their natural environment. Through the power of live streams, they have brought the marsh to them.
Since September, Solano RCD has used technology to engage more than 1,300 sixth-graders from throughout the county. In the past week, students from Dixon, Vallejo, Fairfield and Suisun City have logged on to receive interactive lessons on the marsh from their homes. On Thursday, three classes of sixth-graders from Fairmont Charter School “checked in” to the marsh.
Marianne Butler, Solano RCD’s environmental education coordinator, said it has been quite a shift from in-person lessons.
“We’re used to having 50-minute lessons in the classroom and an all-day field trip,” she said. “Now we’re doing four in-class lessons that are 30 minutes and an hour and a half ‘field trip,’ so a lot of the content had to be changed around.”
Nonetheless, educators have been able to make the lessons work. A big part of the adapted program’s success, Butler said, was a software program called Nearpod to link the students to nature virtually. Additionally, the platform has allowed students to embed videos, ask questions and even play games.
“We’ll probably keep those Nearpods for teachers to give a supplemental lesson,” she said.
Butler said that one-on-one lessons are still preferable, but the main message of the program is the same: to allow students to value Solano County’s land and become stewards of it. Doing so virtually, she said, has allowed such lessons to remain.
Three Solano RCD educators were at the marsh Thursday: Shannon Denno, Laurel Olsen and Lidia Tropeano. They set up iPads at different locations throughout the marsh and rotated to different stations to teach different classes different lessons. There was the “plant station” to learn about different species of flora, the “soil station” to learn about the differences between grassland and wetland soils and a “water station” to learn about oxygen levels in the marsh.
At the plant station, Olsen placed a quadrat — a series of PVC pipes connected to form a square — to count the number of plant species within. She highlighted the different plants in the quadrat, such as pickleweed — a favorite of the native salt marsh harvest mouse — and saltgrass.
“I like to see more native plants here,” Olsen told students. “They’re more tolerant to salinity.”
Over at the water station, Tropeano held up a turbidity tube, a device used to test the clarity of the water, and asked students to identify how many centimeters of water the tube was filled with.
“It’s really exciting to be able to bring the marsh to students virtually,” she said. “I love to hear their responses and their observations based on what they notice at the marsh.”
The lessons don’t stop at the marsh either, Tropeano said.
“We ask them throughout the day to bring these nature connections into their own lives in real time,” she said. “They’re gonna be able to go on a scavenger hunt and find a texture of soil similar to one we have at the marsh. I think that’s an interesting way to connect what we’re doing virtually to their own lives and having them participate at home.”
Tropeano said lessons include anything from how stormwater can impact the marsh to how to conserve the marsh, basically “giving them the opportunity to make observations and think like scientists throughout the whole day.”
The students also get to see and hear the marsh’s diverse wildlife. Nearly every session, Tropeano said they have gotten to see river otters swimming or their droppings to let them know an otter was there. She also said students are able to do a “marsh mindfulness activity” where they can just listen to the various sounds of the marsh, including lots of birds.
“The marsh wren is very vocal,” she said.
Once concept that Butler said worked better in virtual learning was being able to define watersheds. From their homes, students were told to gather materials to make their own model watersheds. They would build them out of materials like Legos and spray water in them. They would also use sites like Flipgrid to show off their models.
“I feel like them taking materials, taking water and making their own models made them understand the concept of how water drains from a high point to a low point through the watershed and out into the ocean,” she said.
With a new stay-at-home order being issued for the Greater Sacramento area — where many Solano RCD staff commute from — the program will continue to adapt. Butler said that rather than having educators livestream from the marsh for the remaining trips, they will talk students through pre-recorded videos.
“We really want to be responsible and not have our team driving if there’s an SIP (shelter-in-place) order,” she said.
Tropeano said she is grateful to have a format to allow students to feel connected to their local watersheds.
“I just hope that it still allows them this excitement and this importance,” she said. “We’re all a part of our watershed and of nature.”
Despite not hosting field trips, Tropeano encourages students to visit the marsh with their families on their own time.
“We’re teaching them about stormwater pollution and drought, but I also want to foster curiosity for them to even look right outside their home,” she said.