Like museums and tourism sites across Newfoundland and Labrador, Memorial’s Botanical Garden and Johnson Geo Centre rely on visitors to keep their doors open.
Along with delayed openings and timed admissions, the COVID-19 pandemic caused drastic changes to operations, such as a quick shift towards virtual programming
That translated into offerings such as an online composting tutorial, multiple Facebook Live events and learning campaigns, STEAM Quest virtual summer camp and the Signal Hill Science Show.
The enthusiastic uptake of the virtual programming meant that the education staff at both sites realized early on that a larger challenge was on the horizon: the 2020-21 school year.
‘Developing from the ground up’
“We recognized that even if children went back to school, there would be no way they would be able to join us for in-person field trips at the Botanical Garden or Geo Centre,” said Kate Murphy, environmental education co-ordinator. “We needed to find a way to innovate and bring our hands-on learning experiences online.”
Ms. Murphy led her team of Memorial student employees in the development of three curriculum-based virtual field trips: two for the Botanical Garden and one for the Geo Centre.
After surveying teachers, the team developed a model that includes multiple educational videos, online games, in-class lesson plans complete with handouts, and a 360-degree tour of the host site.
The team offered these materials to teachers through Google Classrooms, a platform regularly used by educators.
“The challenge of the project was that we had never done anything like it before,” Ms. Murphy said. “We were developing completely from the ground up.”
This innovation includes extending the time of the field trip. The materials provide more learning experiences than a traditional in-person field trip, which runs about two hours.
“Where once only schools in St. John’s or on the Avalon could take part, now schools across the province can.”
With the new model, teachers can pick and choose from a variety of materials and present them to their classes on their own schedule.
This means that students don’t have to miss class time for other subjects. Another big change: no bussing costs, something that can restrict access to in-person field trips.
“The most significant impact of taking our field trips into the digital world is the expansion of their outreach,” said Kim Shipp, director of the Botanical Garden and Geo Centre. “Where once only schools in St. John’s or on the Avalon could take part, now schools across the province can.”
Participants from all over the province
And they have.
Since the launch of the virtual field trips in the week of Oct. 12, schools in Nain and Change Islands have booked, among numerous others.
One Grade 3 teacher from Labrador shared about her class’s experience with the soil virtual field trip: “It was a nice way to get away from the student book and do something a little different, while still meeting the curriculum outcomes . . . Thank you again, so much! From myself and my students, we had a blast.”
In reference to the rocks and minerals virtual field trip, one Grade 4 teacher shared that the activity was “so awesome, especially since we couldn’t do such an activity at school. I always counted on the Geo Centre for this experience for my students.”
Homeschooling parents have also made bookings. Between the Botanical Garden and the Geo Centre, the classes are reaching hundreds of Newfoundland and Labrador youth, recently reaching close to the 800 mark. Staff are now considering expanding their reach outside provincial borders, aiming for a global audience.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to think about how these virtual resources can be accessed by schools in all different locations, bringing people together and creating community across large distances, as well as offering students and teachers unique and immersive learning experiences,” said Ms. Murphy.
She says they have received multiple inquiries about the development of more virtual field trips.
“I think that what we’ve created is a very valuable resource and means of outreach,” said Ms. Murphy. “And with our current model, we should be able to offer our virtual field trip experiences alongside our in-person field trips, so that we can offer a diverse suite of educational experiences to students across the province.”