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 Finding New Ways to Engage Students

​By Shelley Glenn Lee

Shelley Glenn Lee at the coastline at La Jolla CoveEngaging students in local phenomena is one of my favorite parts about teaching science and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I love being able to share experiences outdoors and "in the field" with my students and their families. From tidepooling to hiking slot canyons, exploring a sandy beach, investigating river bugs in the creek, or surveying native ants in the local river park, doing fieldwork makes science and the three dimensions of NGSS come alive. 

During the past year, I was worried that our students would miss out on these valuable field experiences that allow us to deeply inquire about our natural world. Then I realized that distance learning provided me with a unique opportunity to Zoom from almost anywhere I wanted, and I could bring all my students with me! When we first switched to virtual learning in the spring of 2020, my kindergarten team and I were in the middle of a project exploring our local lagoons. We were fortunate to have visited a lagoon right before we shut down but had plans to revisit another location at the lagoon as part of our project work. I thought to myself, "I can still go to the lagoon, wear my mask, and record a virtual trip for the students!" I took my phone, set up my zoom, and recorded a short hike, stopping to observe cliff swallows, ospreys, bees and butterflies, and reading interpretive panels along the way. The students were so happy to see the lagoon again, and I felt satisfied with how we made the best of a challenging situation. 

Fast forward to the fall and winter of 2020, and we are still at home. Knowing all the amazing natural phenomena that were going on around San Diego, I made plans to try and Zoom live "on location" with students. In December, San Diego was going to be experiencing the "King Tides"— extremely high tides that had potential to flood low lying areas and contribute to coastal erosion. I set out early one morning and headed to La Jolla, where we could get a look at the extensive coastline during the high tide. We happened to have a large swell that day and the waves crashing into the cliffs provided for much excitement. After starting my Zoom with my 4th-grade class, I asked for volunteers to help monitor the chat room, the waiting room, and manage student questions. I began my walk near La Jolla Cove, where waves crashed through the sea caves and pelicans and cormorants roosted at the top of the cliffs. I walked down closer to the cove where sea lions found refuge at the top of rocky piles, barking, and enjoying the splash zone. When my first class ended, I said goodbye, brought in my second class, set us up again, and did the whole walk over. My students and I were so energized by the experience, I vowed to do more live classes from the field. 

As January rolled around, we thought perhaps we might be able to gather in small groups again. But, that was not going to happen anytime soon. I was disheartened, because each school year, we implement a geology-focused project with our 75 4th-graders and we usually spend a lot time in the field exploring San Diego's geological history at places such as Mission Trails, Anza Borrego, Torrey Pines, Calavera Nature Preserve, and other locations. Nothing beats real life experience when it comes to observing patterns in the earth, seeing million-year-old fossils in the cliffs, touching and investigating sand particles, and searching for evidence of weathering and erosion all around. Since our La Jolla experience went so well, we scheduled weekly virtual field trips and, with the help of all the 4th-grade teachers and students, we shared hour-long adventures all around San Diego. With students in (virtual) tow, I hiked from the top of Torrey Pines to the cliffs and beach below, walked into an extinct volcano, visited the interpretive areas of Mission Trails Regional Park, and explored the layers of fossils in the cliffs of Del Mar.

Now that we are back in school, we are so happy to see and be with each other again in person. While we continue to be constrained by COVID-19 restrictions and are unable to do field trips together at this time, I am so grateful to have had the experience of using technology to take our students on phenomena-based adventures and I look forward to the days ahead when we can get outside and explore together again!

Shelley Glenn Lee is a K-5 science lab teacher from High Tech Elementary North County. Like many other educators, Glenn Lee found innovative and creative ways to teach and connect with students throughout the pandemic. Live virtual field trips via Zoom were a favorite activity for Glenn Lee and her students.