Reimagining Hands-On Environmental Science Learning

By: Laurel Sebastian

“How can we make online learning engaging?” is a common question being asked by teachers and families around the country this fall. At KIDS for the BAY, our educators have been working hard to design interactive online programs that connect students with nature, turn them on to science, and inspire environmental action. 

Our place-based environmental science programs include collaborative online lessons, simple at-home experiments, screen-free outdoor activities, and redesigned Environmental Action Projects. We hope each student will complete their program with a deeper understanding of why we believe that Everyone Is an Environmentalist! 

“I believe students need as much information as possible about their environment and the impacts that everyday life can have on it.” – Michelle Miller, Fourth Grade Teacher, Gregory Gardens Elementary School, Pleasant Hill.

Our programs will encourage all students to get outside and take environmental action in their local community, like this Antioch student during a litter cleanup last year!
Our programs encourage all students to get outside and take environmental action
in their local community, like this Antioch student during a litter cleanup last year!

Our new online lessons include the same foundational environmental science and stewardship concepts, but in reimagined formats. For example, while students traditionally learned about the San Francisco Bay watershed by building a clay model, they now investigate an interactive watershed map, play a drag and drop mapping game, and do a watershed scavenger hunt outside for homework. 

A student from San Leandro shares pictures of observations from the watershed scavenger hunt homework activity!

Similarly, to learn about animals and their adaptations, students work together to discover and label animal adaptations in a Zoom lesson before going outside to observe and draw adaptations of animals in their own neighborhoods. By pairing each short online lesson with time outside, students have the chance to connect more deeply with their local watershed environment. 

To keep students engaged in science, we kept some of our favorite classroom experiments and added new ones into our distance learning programs. Students now explore the varying densities of saltwater and freshwater at home by attempting to float an egg in these different water types. A KftB Instructor models mixing the solutions in the live lesson to simulate how water mixes in the bay estuary. Through these first-hand experiences, students discover how saltwater sinks to the bottom of the bay, then mixes with freshwater in the null zone. In another experiment, students discuss and explore watersheds, build their own mini watersheds at home with wax paper and markers, and watch how streams flow down to common points when it rains. 

In our Environmental Action Projects, students focus on becoming environmental leaders in their home communities. Instead of leading a Schoolwide Assembly, students compile short videos summarizing their program into a video montage to inspire environmental action. This new format allows students to share their knowledge with schoolmates, families and friends. In other Action Projects, students design educational posters about reducing marine plastic pollution, or calculate their water consumption and make specific environmental pledges to conserve water. 

In some Action Projects, students summarize what they’ve learned in educational posters
and discuss the power of sharing important knowledge to inspire others.

Since there is a huge range of distance learning platforms used by teachers across our service area, our lessons must be adaptable and universally accessible. Depending on the school, we may use Google Classroom or Seesaw, Zoom or Microsoft Meetings, Peardeck or Jamboard. We are working individually with each of our partner teachers to ensure that our programs fit into their particular virtual classroom needs. For example, when breakout rooms are not possible, we emphasize class polls, student movements and full-class discussions. When more options are available, students open collaborative documents to analyze images, draw pictures, and write stories together. As many of us have learned, flexibility and creativity are the current keys to success in distance learning!

KIDS for the BAY