Unexpected Upsides of Virtual Programs

I think most of us can agree that we’d prefer to work with students in person – that’s one of the main reasons we got into the field of Environmental Education in the first place, after all! Having to transition to completely online/virtual teaching has been a hard adjustment, and there are definitely some downsides to this setting. However, what’s been pleasantly surprising are all of the unexpected benefits of virtual teaching – and there have been many!

One of the first benefits we noticed is that, while we have to keep individual interactions shorter, we’ve been able to connect with students more frequently and work with them multiple times over the course of a single program series. These interactions have allowed us to really get to know the students, and to develop a better rapport with them than had been possible with our previous single session classroom programs. Each student also gets more time with our programs, more interactions with our volunteers, and more exposure to the concepts we’re teaching and reinforcing.

Another unexpected benefit has been the ability to work with teachers and classes well outside our normal geographic region. Due to the limitations of travel, storage, traffic, and timing, our in-person programs have traditionally been restricted to just schools within the southeastern portion of San Mateo County, and the northern portion of Santa Clara county. However, with virtual programs, we can reach students in any city, any county, and really any state! We’ve been enjoying connecting with new schools and new teachers, and offering our science programs to anyone that wants them.

Toby Goldberg, School Programs Manager, showing off her cat’s feet during a mammal movement program.

Finally, the flexibility of virtual teaching has provided some unexpected opportunities for creativity, humor, and ingenuity. For example, during the “Mammal Movement” lesson, many of our EV teachers have discovered the benefits of being able to grab their nearby pets to show what their feet look like, and to better help the students understand the differences between different types of “walkers”. During a lesson about using Natural Gas as a power source, EV teachers have been able to use the kettle on their stove as a quick and easy demonstration. And many of our lessons ask students to find objects in their own homes to use as part of the activity, helping them to understand that science can be experienced anywhere, and isn’t restricted to a classroom setting.

So – is virtual teaching our preferred method of sharing the love of science and nature with Bay Area students? Of course not, and it probably never will be. But rather than becoming something we just grit our teeth over and survived, the past year of virtual teaching has provided us with many unexpected instances of laughter, fulfillment, satisfaction, and joy. And I think we’ve all realized that the “ah-ha” moments with students are precious and wonderful, no matter whether those are in-person or virtual, in the classroom, outdoors, or in our own homes. 

Molly Landrith, Volunteer Coordinator, with a new training class (Fall 2020)

Offering virtual programs, and therefore virtual volunteer opportunities, has greatly increased the amount and variety of people able to volunteer with us. Although we’ve always been open to anyone that wants to volunteer, certain constraints like job commitment and commutes make it difficult for many people to volunteer during the week. With most people working remotely and our virtual programs being shorter (30 minutes as opposed to 90) we’ve had more volunteers who work or go to school be able to fit volunteering into their schedule. Plus, there is no commute involved. So, the time commitment to volunteer for the same meaningful programs has dramatically decreased. 

At the beginning of the school year, we weren’t sure whether or not people would be interested in volunteering virtually with us. We’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that people are still excited about engaging in meaningful volunteering, even (and sometimes especially) if it’s virtual. We’ve transitioned our orientation, training, and volunteer gatherings to be virtual so our volunteers can still participate in all the wonderful activities our organization offers, while staying safe at home. 

The next time we onboard volunteers will be early March so if you’re interested in learning more, please complete this interest form. We look forward to getting to know you!