by Brooke Knapick, Director of Educational Program Development

Necessity is the mother of invention. It sounds cliché, but in the evolving and uncertain landscape of environmental education today, this sentiment is extremely applicable. For more than 50 years, a visit to The Wetlands Institute has been a hands-on, feet wet educational experience. The Wetlands Institute hosts more than 20,000 visitors each year and our formal education programs serve over 12,000 children from nearly 150 local schools and organizations, bringing science concepts to life through interactive programs and real-world applications.

Earlier this spring, as schools abruptly closed, with students sent home with laptops, field trips and assemblies canceled, and businesses closed, it became clear that for the remainder of this year, and likely into the next, environmental education would be a largely, if not entirely, virtual experience. Environmental education centers and non-formal educators across the country immediately felt the impact, not just financially, but pedagogically. So much of what makes outdoor and environmental education impactful, and real, relies on the interaction of participant, educator, and outdoor experience, all working in concert to create a genuine human connection to the environment. It is the sights, the smells, the sounds, the feelings, the immersion in the environment that creates connection, and it is the pursuit of fostering this connection that guides our life’s work. Duplicating this emotional and experiential connection in a virtual milieu seemed unfathomable. Many environmental education professionals began to wonder, is it even possible?

Replicating this exact emotional and experiential connection might not be possible, but innovating and creating an entirely new and equally profound virtual connection is possible. Challenging, yes, but possible; and with possibility comes opportunity for invention and growth in new and unexplored directions. With any new teaching method, including a virtual one, varied pedagogical approaches are essential. The personalities and learning styles within the audience are diverse and individuals respond differently in similar situations. In modifying and adapting our programs, we must still present information in a combination of ways that cohesively encompass visual, aural, written and hands-on applications, all while participant, educator, and the environment remain physically distant from one another.

With that in mind, Education staff began to conceptualize and create a framework, a Virtual Wetlands Experience, to rework our visitor and formal education programs to inspire and foster this new virtual connection to the natural world, while seeking to maintain a competitive edge in a new and emerging frontier. This portal is a new gateway to learning about and exploring our surrounding wetland and marine environment, for both general admission visitors and student-teacher virtual classrooms alike. It will include virtual and interactive tours along our Salt Marsh Trail and Elevated Walkway, in our Aquarium and Terrapin Station, and at our Aquarium Teaching and Touch Tank; live animal Creature Features; virtual exploratory Environmental Education Field Trips and Traveling Environmental Education Programs; downloadable teacher and parent resources; and much more!

Our Virtual Wetlands Experience is only the beginning, a first step in addressing the changing landscape of environmental education. Like all new inventions, it will grow and evolve amid successes and failures, but the environmental educators behind its creation and content are adaptable, innovative, and flexible. These current challenges are embraced not only by The Wetlands Institute, but also the entire environmental education community. We are in this together and are excited about the opportunities we have to expand our programs both this summer and into the next school year. Check out our progress at the Virtual Wetlands Experience.