Taking the EcoCenter Outside

The EcoCenter is many things; the Environmental Volunteer’s main office building, a historic landmark in the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve, and a nature interpretive center! Every Friday and the first and third Saturdays of the month, we hold open hours – setting up exhibits, displays, and activities for any Baylands visitors to come inside and enjoy with the facilitation of our volunteer docents.

The building that would become the EcoCenter originated in the 1940’s, when philanthropist Lucie Stern commissioned the building as the headquarters for the Sea Scouts. Back then, the Palo Alto Baylands didn’t look like it did today – it used to be a yacht harbor! The Sea Scouts would teach their members about boating, and launch trips from their building.

In 1986, the City of Palo Alto closed the harbor, and after a significant environmental push the Baylands were restored to natural salt marshes (a topic for another time!). The old Sea Scout base, no longer used, deteriorated and sank into the mud.

However, in 2004, the Environmental Volunteers adopted the building and took on the task of restoring and repurposing it as a nature interpretive center. This work was completed in 2012, and since then it has welcomed in Baylands visitors, to learn about the natural world.

Inside, we have a variety of materials to engage visitors. Our touch screens provide a digital way to interact with the natural world through pictures, information, and even games. Taxidermy allows animals which have died (of natural causes) to be preserved in a lifelike way, allowing visitors to see the smallest features of owls, hawks, and even bobcats – animals you would never see so close! One of our displays features a light up migration path, showing where different animals travel – and how far! Each open hours session is facilitated by at least one EV docent, who is there to guide visitors and answer questions, creating an unforgettable educational experience.

Now, I’m sure many have the question – how does a nature interpretive center operate during a pandemic?

Unfortunately, the doors to our EcoCenter have had to remain closed. We cannot let public visitors inside right now. However, we are still committed to finding a way to engage Palo Alto Baylands visitors. So we took the EcoCenter outside!

Across from the EcoCenter is the duck pond – a circular pool with paths leading around it,  which is the favorite spot of many of the our local birds. It has also been the perfect spot to set up Outdoor Open Hours! With a folding table or large cart, we are able to bring our exhibits to visitors while the building remains closed.

There are some new challenges. Many of our exhibits and activities encouraged touching, as we believe hands-on engagement creates some of the most memorable experiences. Unfortunately, visitors are not able to touch anything now under COVID-19 guidelines. Our EV docents must carefully consider what can be seen from 6ft away, and how they can describe features that are best explored with touch. Masks are required for volunteers, and hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes are brought out with each exhibit as well.

Our volunteers are all passionate about environmental education, and are always thrilled to engage with the community in any way they safely can to help others learn about nature. As EV Joyce Rice put it, “It is wonderful meeting a variety of visitors of all ages, people are really interested in interacting and learning about nature, even at a distance”. 

Since we started this outdoors exhibit in late June, we have had great success with engaging Palo Alto Baylands Visitors. Our docents track how many visitors they engage with, and over the past 2 months they have engaged with over 300 visitors! Some interactions are brief with visitors taking a moment to look at the display, or asking for directions, before going on their way. Some visitors have detailed questions, which the docents can help answer. Sometimes, kids may spend a long time at the table deciding which bird is their favorite! All interactions are positive, and each contributes to a memorable experience at the Baylands.

 If you are interested, come see our outside exhibits at the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve, and learn about nature with us!

Summer hours:

Every Tuesday and Friday, 9 am to 12 pm

Starting mid-September (Fall hours):

Every Friday, 10 am to 1 pm

First and Third Saturday of every month, 10 am to 1 pm.