BEETLES & BaySci Host Virtual Open Space Conference

August 20, 2020

Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lawrence Hall of Science researchers and educators have felt gravely concerned about its effects on both formal and informal education. In June, our Better Environmental Education Teaching, Learning & Expertise Sharing (BEETLES) Project published an alarming study that showed that some 63% of outdoor and environmental education organizations feel uncertain about their ability to reopen their doors ever again. In addition to these informal learning spaces, the impact of COVID-19 on school districts and schools has been well documented throughout the last several months.

As part of our ongoing efforts to support formal and informal science education, BEETLES and BaySci, two programs from the Lawrence Hall of Science, have been working to build organizational capacity within their respective fields: BaySci, a school district capacity-building project for promoting science education and environmental literacy; and BEETLES, working to build greater capacity for outdoor science education organizations. These two programs recently collaborated to host a two-day, virtual open space conference for outdoor and environmental education program leaders, school and district leaders, and classroom teachers from across the country and even around the world. On July 28–29, more than 1,000 participants gathered on Zoom to discuss the challenges presented by the pandemic, focusing on mutually beneficial partnerships, both formal and informal, that in particular can help the informal programs survive the COVID-19 challenges while at the same time promoting equity and environmental literacy within school systems.

The conference featured two keynote speakers who shared their experiences and expertise in science and outdoor environmental education. The first speaker, Dr. Andrea Kane, gave a talk titled “Using School District and Environmental Education Partnerships to Leverage Equity Issues Related to Online Learning.” Dr. Kane is superintendent of Queen Anne’s County Public Schools in Maryland, and has over 25 years of experience in the field. She gave an overview of her state’s longtime commitment to promoting environmental literacy among its students, and mentioned several partnerships with organizations like U.S. Fish & Wildlife, the Maryland Association of Environmental and Outdoor Education, and others to support those efforts. She also presented some of her district’s considerations for reopening schools, including plans for using outdoor spaces as classrooms and supporting equitable at-home learning for all students. Dr. Kane concluded her presentation by leading a productive discussion about reframing environmentalism and breaking down barriers for communities of color that often are left out of environmental education opportunities.

The second keynote speaker was Anupama Joshi, Executive Director of Blue Sky Funders Forum in New York City. The Forum is a nonprofit organization that seeks to inspire philanthropy and strengthen communities by advancing environmental literacy and connections to nature. Her talk was titled “Rethink Outside: Elevating Benefits of the Outdoors in COVID-19.” Joshi discussed trends in education philanthropy in the context of COVID-19, including rapid-response fundraising and nonmonetary support such as providing access to at-home learning technology. She presented information about Blue Sky’s “Rethink Outside” initiative, launched in October 2019 to challenge prevailing narratives around time spent in nature. The initiative also promotes the benefits of enjoying and using the outdoors as a basic human right. As she observed, in light of the pandemic, public attitudes toward the outdoors are changing as more and more people choose to spend time outside, owing to shelter-in-place orders. She also described effective messaging tactics that can be used to ensure that this new attitude about the importance of spending time in nature continues beyond the pandemic.

In addition to the keynote speakers, conference attendees participated in over 60 breakout discussion sessions. Since the conference was structured as an open space, the content of these sessions was decided by the attendees, who were invited to propose discussion topics of their own choosing. Subject matter ranged broadly, including discussions on redeploying outdoor educators to partner and work with districts and schools to address the needs of school and district staff, students, and families; on how augmented and virtual reality technologies can enhance online education; on Incorporating Environmental, Economic, and Racial Justice with NGSS Standards in a Digital Environment; on Exploring Place-Based Learning Through Community Partnerships; and much more. Visit the conference website for a full list of sessions.

Overall, conference attendees reported an overwhelmingly positive experience, with many expressing a desire to hold another conference in the near future to continue discussing the challenges presented by COVID-19. Participants expressed gratitude for the opportunity to connect with colleagues and potential partners who share the common goals of increasing environmental literacy and enhancing access to outdoor education. “It was flawless, valuable, and well worth my time to attend. Thank you for caring about the world, people, and the students we teach,” wrote one attendee.

In closing, participants collaborated on creating an inspiring closing poem, highlighting the importance of their work and why they do it:

We do this for …
the Magnificently Memorable Moments
lasting positive change
the children
the kids
the planet
the future
the future we want
For Kids
The children
to share life
For the love of future generations …
our living planet
community and family
We do this for the love of our children and a better future
people and the planet!
We do this for Mother Earth.
all species
The community
Fighting for Equity for the students in my community
We do this for the good of all life
We do this to make the world just a little bit better
We do this for the trees, bees, and all the things with knees!
We do this for a chance at a beautiful future
To protect what we LOVE.
for Joy
to make tomorrow even better
To show belonging
because it is vital to create meaningful connections to the outdoor world
meaningful impact
indigenous reparations
Play and lightness and depth and being “creaturely”
For survival and love
to inspire
share passions
Butterflies, trees, and birds!
because we are alive and we have to
community connection with belonging and inclusion for all
to connect with everything and everyone
because it gives our lives meaning in support of children and the environment
To keep our humanity and connect our souls
To uphold what is best in us, best in others, best in the land we serve
to create a meaningful connection with Mother Nature
Our future depends on this work

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