Education Transformation: Taking Cues from a Butterfly

American lady butterfly on blazing-star

American lady butterfly on blazing-star

This spring and summer, the Arboretum education unit has been all about adaptation and transformation.  As I eagerly search for monarch eggs or caterpillars in the prairie and at home in my yard, I ponder how each of us adapts differently in this time of unprecedented disruption and uncertainty in our daily lives. Some of our staff are working from home, and some naturalists have not returned to work since fall 2019 when we last saw busloads of school children. We have taken a step back to assess how we typically educate and engage our visitors and how we can transform our offerings now and into the future. We need to think outside the box as we re-imagine visitor opportunities. Staying connected with our program participants and visitors is more important than ever.

We are learning how to turn in-person, interactive, inquiry-based activities into mostly virtual experiences for both our youth and adult audiences. As you may have guessed, being outdoors is our comfort zone. We thrive on the Arboretum trails, helping visitors explore the Arboretum’s ecosystems and interweaving the lives of plants, animals, and fungi with geography and other land features. We tell stories about the land to spark curiosity and encourage inquiry. This shift to virtual programming will take consideration, creativity, and people power to be successful.

Our programs will maintain core attributes that foster interest, inspiration, awe, and wonder. To slightly paraphrase Aldo Leopold, we must teach students to see the land, understand what they see, and enjoy what they understand. In late spring, Jennifer Mitchell, precollege and community education specialist, connected with third graders through a self-made video demonstrating how to search for soil organisms using everyday recycled materials.

In early February, camp registrations began pouring in almost as soon as the registration link went live. By the end of February our camps were already more than half full. In mid-March everyone began working remotely to be Safer at Home, and in early April we cancelled all summer programs due to the coronavirus pandemic. While it was deeply disappointing to cancel Earth Focus Day Camps, Jennifer is providing off-site support for the Lussier Community Education Center’s summer camp program. Using their outdoor spaces and gardens as a classroom, campers focused on connecting to place, looking for insects, studying flowers, and examining trees and the animals that live in them.

While we are eager to once again provide regular adult naturalist-led programs, we are not yet able to do so. We hope our visitors are finding ways to get outside (while still following public health guidelines), exploring the colors, shapes, smells, and sounds of the land, as well as simply finding quiet respite in the beauty and peacefulness of the natural world. We encourage people to use their senses to experience nature day and night, from frogs and fireflies, dragonflies and ducks, hoots and howls, to blooming buds and buzzing bumble bees. Create a nature journal to record what you see, hear, smell, and touch with sketches, words, and doodles. Download this Nature Exploration and Journaling activity booklet that we sent to the dozens of registered campers this year as a reminder that exploring nature can be done almost anywhere.

Our fall schedule will feature some virtual programing, including an October lecture series on Land, Culture, Identity: Roots of Resilience. Speakers will explore how an individual’s land ethic is often intertwined with their identity, which can impart a measure of resilience. There will also be opportunities to hone nature poetry skills with virtual classes in October and November. These programs will all be free. Watch for more information coming to the Arboretum website, social media, and arbNews. If you miss the night walks as much as we do, check out the UW Space Place YouTube channel for webinars about observing the night sky.

We are considering old and new ways to inspire connections to the land, now more than ever. The land provides a sense of wonder and contributes to our well-being. It can help us transform a challenging situation into an opportunity for connection and appreciation. As our educational programming begins to look a bit different, our mission remains the same: to foster the land ethic in hearts and minds of all through public education and engagement.

—Gail Epping Overholt, education coordinator