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Reflections from shifting an outdoor, community-based extracurricular program online

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

On March 14th, Earth Team encountered our first Covid-19 related event cancellation - we had planned to bring several student teams to restore the Alameda Naval Base breeding bird habitat. Soon after, several school districts announced school closures would go into effect on March 16th. Three days later, Gavin Newsom ordered all of California to shelter-in-place. The last five weeks, while challenging, has revealed Earth Team's great ability to adapt to our new societal ways.

A Quick Note

I am not a full time educator, nor do I teach each day of the week. I also do not have a strict set of curricula that I must teach my students. The flexibility of my program has made my transition to virtual teaching much easier than most others. I applaud all elementary, high school and college educators who have been faced with the unprecedented challenge of moving their entire curriculum online with only a few days notice. My heart goes out especially to those that teach hands-on curriculum, including art, lab-based classes, and physical education. While I know my position differs greatly from most teachers, I do believe my experiences can shed some light on the educational situation during Covid-19.

Earth Team Overview I am a Climate Corps AmeriCorps Fellow placed at Earth Team. I am technically a volunteer, using my time to learn the skills of education while helping a nonprofit succeed. Earth Team recruits teams of interns from Title-1 high schools in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area. Title-1 high schools are those where at least 40 percent of the student population are considered low-income and qualify for federal aid, such as food assistance programs. We currently have 8 teams of about 14 students each at 7 different high schools totalling over 100 low-income students enrolled. If our interns complete the academic year, they are paid for the total hours they worked, up to $500 each. This program incentivises students to stay in school while helping to financially support their families. Earth Team focuses on teaching climate science and leads student teams on habitat restoration, environmental research and community outreach projects. In addition, Earth Team has no grades, homework or exams. We believe fostering a deeper connection with nature, training youth to become environmental stewards and preparing students for careers in STEM can be successful in a nontraditional academic setting by greatly lowering the stakes and promoting fun, team-based activities.

Earth Team is primarily an outdoor, community-based program. We meet our students after school on-campus and either work on project preparation or professional development activities (such as resume building and interview practice) in the classroom, or we transport our interns off-campus to remove litter or conduct water quality testing. We also lead our teams in monthly weekend events that focus on habitat restoration or community education and outreach events. We limit our lectures to 20 minutes of our 2 hour-long meetings, instead focusing on hands-on learning such as mini research projects to create educational posters to hang up on-campus. Earth Team also plans outdoor adventures that enable students who may never have seen the snow or the ocean as well as many who have never been hiking or camping to take part in an overnight trip into the wilderness. Several teams also make the annual trip to the GLOBE Student Research Symposium to present their research projects to students and scientists.

Changing Curriculum & Project Scopes

Covid-19 and the resulting shelter-in-place orders greatly restricted Earth Team's scope. No longer can we meet with our interns on-campus, let alone take them into the field. The remaining outdoor adventure trips as well as the Student Research Symposium were cancelled. Many of us at Earth Team felt heartbroken by the drastic changes to the promises we made to our interns. Never did we consider cancelling the remaining internship, however.

Instead, Earth Team jumped on the challenge of creating new, meaningful internships for our students. We all quickly brainstormed what we could teach to our interns remotely. I am so proud to share that Earth Team did not cancel a single afterschool meeting and our first remote meetings took place just one day after the school closures went into effect.

A side note - both Zoom breakout rooms and G Suite have been so critical in the success of Earth Team meetings. Both allow interns to work together remotely, enabling Earth Team to mimic group learning and team building in an online setting.

One of the great things about Earth Team is that our content is different from regular high school classes. We lead lessons and activities that are unlikely for a high school student to do normally. Continuing this strategy online was difficult - how could I create material that was different, useful and fun? For the first month of Covid-19, I borrowed material that I learned during my Conservation Master's and various workshops I took as an adult. I knew this material would not be covered in high school, thus ensuring our interns would not be learning the same thing twice. I also worked to make related activities that enabled interns to work together in Zoom breakout rooms and then practice their public speaking skills by presenting their work to the rest of the group.

For the first week, I taught science communication. I adapted a workshop led by UC Berkeley PhD student Sara ElShafie and Pixar. I began by teaching my interns about how we can tell stories to communicate science to wider audiences. I then broke them into small groups to create their own stories using Google Slides. This meeting not only allowed interns to learn something new and continue working together, but also taught them how to use the different functions of Zoom. You can read more about this meeting here and here.

I owe the success of the second week to Itzel and Ben, colleagues of mine at Earth Team. Itzel suggested having the interns calculate their own water and ecological footprints. Ben created an at-home waste audit lesson. I took both of their ideas and included a lesson I had learned at Oxford on Earth Overshoot Day to have my Arroyo High interns understand their own impacts on the planet. Then, the interns worked in small groups to ideate a project that would lower water or ecological footprints around the globe. You can read more about it in the second half of this article.

Skyline High Earth Team is one of the intern groups that participates in the GLOBE Student Research Symposium. For the second week of virtual meetings, the interns continued working on their project as if nothing had changed. The interns were given a lesson on data visualization and worked in groups to decide the best way to share the data they collected on toxic algae occurrence and water quality at several Bay Area water bodies. One silver lining of virtual meetings is that Earth Team can now bring in guest speakers from all over the world. My good friend Heidi joined the second virtual Skyline meeting to discuss her research and answer questions about college life.

For the last meeting in March, I adapted several lectures from my Master's. I created a 20 minute lesson on different types of protected areas in California, the IUCN Red List and the difference between keystone and flagship species. To put into practice what they learned, the interns were grouped into Zoom breakout rooms and used the whiteboard function to draw a protected area. The interns had to decide what humans were and were not allowed to do in their area and pick a mascot species from a list of animals with a different IUCN Red List status and ecosystem function.

While I believe the first three weeks of virtual meetings were successful, I started to think that these lessons were too similar to a regular high school class. Long term projects, such as Skyline's algae research and Arroyo's art show, enable interns to do something meaningful. I had planned to have both of my intern teams work on a campaign to reduce waste at their high schools as part of SEI's campaign contest. Covid-19 made this impossible, but SEI adapted their contest towards creating virtual campaigns. I saw this as an opportunity to teach my interns how to use social media in a professional way, learning skills that they can put on their resumes when applying to future internships. Check out the Earth Team Instagram and Facebook to see their educational campaigns currently in progress.

Another great aspect of Earth Team is the level of decision making we give to our interns. When it comes to long term projects, I take a backseat role. I introduce the project scope and requirements and provide materials and guidance along the way. The interns decide the content and take charge of the execution. In order to maintain this level of intern control, I decided to introduce a second project: an educational game. The interns could decide which project to work on, enabling the interns to still make choices despite the virtual internship.

I owe most of the game project idea to my roommate and a few friends who introduced me to Tabletop Simulator. This game is available on Steam for $20 and enables users to play any board game online with friends. It also allows individuals to create their own games for others to play. I saw this as an awesome opportunity to enable Earth Team interns to educate an entirely new audience: the global online board game community. The interns were tasked with creating an environmental educational game that could be played online. While I will upload their creations to Tabletop Simulator, I wanted to ensure others could play the game online for free. This means that the interns need to think about how to do this, such as sharing the board and rules online and playing with friends on Zoom by sharing screen and annotating. Arroyo interns decided to create a Pandemic inspired game where players must work to stop the spread of invasive species. Skyline interns are working on a game to teach players how to correctly sort waste into the correct bin. Needless to say, I am exceedingly proud of their creative ideas and I can't wait to see their finished games.

One last virtual meeting I will write about is my adaptation of Climate Interactive's World Climate Simulation. This event usually takes place in person. I roleplayed a similar simulation in Oxford which focused on a CITES negotiation regarding a species trade agreement. I remember loving the activity and learned a great deal about how world negotiations take place. While I knew hosting this sort of event online using Zoom would be challenging, I also knew that the educational reward would be high. On Saturday, April 18th, 18 Earth Team interns from various high schools came together to learn how to negotiate a UN climate agreement. You can read about it here.

As of writing this, there are about 7 remaining Earth Team meetings per high school for this academic year. Both teams will continue working on the social media and game projects for several more weeks. Each team will also participate in a shared virtual meeting. The GLOBE research project teams will come together to present their research projects to each other, city representatives and scientists. Arroyo High interns will join with San Lorenzo and Castro Valley high interns to explain the great work they did during their internship to Alameda County representatives and those they worked with at the East Bay Regional Parks District. These events are not only critical in giving our interns valuable public speaking experience, but also providing a platform for their voices to be heard. In addition, both Arroyo and Skyline will continue their professional development. This Saturday, interns will learn how to create LinkedIn profiles, something that will be increasingly necessary for networking during continued shelter-in-place. In May, they will learn how to conduct informal interviews to learn more about different career paths and life as a college student. I am grateful for my friends who quickly volunteered to be interviewed. Zoom will enable my interns to speak to young professionals and grad students in San Francisco, Southern California, Canada and Australia.

While we are no longer able to fulfill Earth Team's scope of outdoor work, we are still continuing climate education, community outreach and preparing our interns for college and their future careers. Read the Earth Team blog to learn about what the other high school groups are learning and working on.

My Concerns Regarding Low-income Youth during Covid-19

I am incredibly proud of all Earth Team staff for our quick adaptation. I am also so impressed with my interns. They are dealing with so much more than I am, yet are continuing to work hard, share their ideas and laugh with me. Many of my interns are seniors in high school. Their proms have been cancelled. The trip to Disneyland will no longer take place. They will not walk across a stage in cap and gown to collect their diplomas. Despite all of this, most continue to log onto Zoom every week for our meetings; I am actually seeing higher attendance now than before we shifted to remote meetings.

However, I have encountered logistical problems associated with online learning. I surveyed my interns after the second week of virtual meetings to better understand their at-home resources. Of the 19 interns that responded to my survey, only 12 had reliable, consistent access to a computer, 4 only had access to a computer on occasion, and 3 had no access to a computer. During virtual meetings, I have also discovered that access to working cameras and microphones limits intern ability to fully participate in group discussions, often having to rely on the chat box to share their ideas. WiFi connectivity has also been an issue; a few interns often have difficulties staying online for the full meeting. To work around these issues, Earth Team has reduced some meeting times from 2 hours to about 45 minutes. Interns then work on their projects in their own time, offline. In addition, we offer interns that are unable to connect virtually the option of completing different assignments. While they miss out on team building activities, they can still prepare to become environmental stewards by reading classics such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring or learning how to collect animal behavior data by watching a zoo livestream. While many of us are able to continue our lives at home with access to computers and reliable WiFi, many low-income youth do not have this luxury. The logistical problems we have encountered at Earth Team makes me worry about student abilities to complete their high school course work.

Additionally, many Earth Team interns work a part-time job after high school and on the weekends. Covid-19 has forced many interns to take on more hours at work or to get another job. While most of my interns are able to continue the internship, two have dropped the program due to time constraints associated with earning extra income for their families. Covid-19 is forcing low-income youth to choose between their high school education and having enough money for their families to eat and afford rent/mortgage payments. I can only imagine the number of youth throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, let alone the country, that are falling behind on their high school education, and perhaps sacrificing their ability to graduate on time, to support their families.

While I know many of us are struggling with working from home or dealing with unemployment, I hope that all of you reading this will take a moment to think back to when you were in high school. Do you remember how important socializing was? What about the struggle of completing hours of homework while balancing chores? These students are now completing their high school year on their own. Many of them are also tasked with taking care of younger siblings or working more hours to supplement their family income. On top of this, they are no longer able to loiter in a park with friends, joking about whatever hip memes the kids are into these days. Many of them no longer have a reason to wake up before noon - one of my interns woke up at 3pm the other day just so he could join our Earth Team meeting on time. It makes me consider the importance of maintaining some sense of normalcy in supporting a high school student's academic progress and mental wellbeing. My interns have told me that only some teachers are holding classes over zoom, while many others are just assigning homework to be completed in their own time. While I do not know which is more successful in maintaining student progress, many of my interns have told me that they like our weekly online Earth Team meetings because it gives them a reason to be awake at a particular time and enables them to see, speak with and work with their friends. Only time will tell which methods of virtual education are the most successful and if online extracurricular activities can help a high school student feel like a normal teenager.

To me, supporting these kids now and post-pandemic is vital. Covid-19 has disrupted their teenage lives and there is real potential for it to put them on a completely different track in life. If you would like to support low-income youth, consider donating your stimulus check to Feeding America, No Kid Hungry, or one of the other programs listed here.


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