Virtually Visiting Flora and Fauna: Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s E-Learning Hub open to allMay 07, 2021 02:46PM ● By HOLLY HAMILTON
When education manager Alex Levine joined the Naples-based Conservancy of Southwest Florida in the summer of 2020, the conservancy’s Nature Center was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Levine and his team moved quickly to pivot the nonprofit’s educational programs.
“There are so many types of learners,” Levine explains. “From homeschoolers, in-person, flexible-schedule to online learners, we needed to create something that would be accessible and successful—regardless of learning model.”
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is a not-for-profit environmental protection organization with a 57-year history focused on the issues impacting the water, land, wildlife and future of Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The conservancy accomplishes this mission through the combined efforts of its experts in the areas of environmental science, policy, wildlife rehabilitation and education.
During that summer, the conservancy education team created a virtual summer camp. It was made possible by funding from the Naples Children & Education Foundation and from Minto Communities and provided kits with tools, crafts, data sheets and more for at-home participants. Throughout the summer, the team expanded its rapidly growing STEM E-Learning Adventures program to include a new E-Learning Hub.
The new E-Learning Hub hosts educational videos, ecology-focused crafts, outdoor data-collecting activities and interactive written exercises. They are available to both in-school learners and at-home learners.
In addition to offering online environmental education resources, conservancy staff members are now virtually hosting interactive live animal encounters for area teachers and their students. The conservancy’s “animal ambassadors” include snakes, alligators, turtles, an owl and a red-tailed hawk.
Initially, the conservancy’s series of online STEM E-Learning Adventures included virtual field trips, videos, trivia and other web-based programs. Now, with the introduction of the E-Learning Hub, those offerings also include standards-aligned lesson plans for both e-learners and in-person classrooms, as well the opportunity to schedule the interactive live animal encounters previously mentioned.
Different programs are offered for three grade levels—elementary, middle and high school. Also, a virtual camp is planned again for the summer of 2021.
One of the main goals was to make sure the conservancy could and can continue to provide educational services equitably. The platform allowed the conservancy to reach more students who may not have been able to afford the in-person programs and field trips and immersive hands-on science because of geographic or financial barriers.
“This did enable us to sidestep the barriers to participation,” Levine says. “The idea of equity in programs is one that will continue into the post-COVID landscape, remaining central to the conservancy’s mission.”
While the E-Learning Hub is accessible to all, so far the programs have been focused on the conservancy’s five-county region—in order to be able to accommodate the interactive live animal encounters with available staff members. The program became fully live in November 2020, and from November to about mid-January 2021, it reached more than 2,000 students.
The E-Learning Hub helps connect students with the region’s diverse wildlife and habitats. It offers hands-on place-based science activities that encourage students to explore their local environment—which can include community parks, school grounds or their own backyard. The E-Learning Hub also offers the opportunity to expand the passion for study and preservation of Florida’s ecosystems to students who live outside the Sunshine State.
“It doesn’t matter what school you attend, where you live or what outdoor spaces are available to you,” Levine notes. “Even if you never heard of Naples, Bonita or the Gulf Coast region, we can give people a greater understanding of the imperiled ecosystems and endangered species that are worth studying and preserving.
“We want everyone to have the tools, knowledge and encouragement to explore their local environment while learning about the amazing creatures we share this planet with.”
All programs are aligned with Florida’s Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s STEM E-Learning Adventures are offered at no cost to students or schools through funding provided by Culture Builds Florida, the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, Arthrex, and the Aileen S. Andrew Foundation.
Post-COVID-19, the conservancy staff members look forward to returning to traditional educational offerings while still maintaining the E-Learning Hub.
In addition, the conservancy’s Susan and William Dalton Discovery Center is being fully renovated with new exhibits and educational opportunities—including new enhancements such as an Augmented Reality Endangered Species exhibit that will allow guests to interact digitally with Florida’s threatened animals. The new John & Carol Walter Discovery Wing will feature an Invasive Species Gallery and digital Climate Change Gallery. To access the E-Learning Hub, visit https://sites.google.com/view/conservancyelearninghub/home.
Holly Hamilton is a Southwest Florida-based storyteller focusing on people, places and partnerships.