By Leah Melber, Ph.D.
Virtual learning has become the new normal for children across the nation, moving science experiments and nature explorations from real life to the small screen. These new instructional pathways have delivered some dynamic benefits from field trips in far-flung locations to video conferencing with famous scientists.
Along with the benefits, however, come some drawbacks. Moving science from active investigation to virtual connectivity has several limitations, one of which is a reduction in direct connections with nature. There is no virtual substitution for a quiet walk outside, the feel of a fuzzy leaf, or the satisfaction of watching a spider spin a web. We know virtual science learning is most successful when it also connects students to the world outside their front door. It was this commitment to blending quality virtual experiences with active time in nature that guided development of a new youth program from the Catalina Island Conservancy.
Catalina Jr. Naturalist is a free, online course for ages 8 to 15 centered on nearby Catalina Island. From barking Catalina Island foxes to a Pimu Tongva soapstone quarry, the island is filled with interesting things to see and explore. This course brings the island to learners, blending virtual insight into its unique natural and cultural history with a suite of related nature activities to do right at home. The course is self-paced with rolling admission, so learners set their own schedule, moving between videos, photos, reading passages and outdoor activities. They can opt-in to virtual meetings with the course instructor and even complete a final knowledge check and earn a graduation certificate.
The course is designed not just to instruct, but also to inspire. Artistically minded youth might want to create a local plant guide. Young conservationists might want to seek out areas to remove litter. Even sitting on an urban doorstep is an opportunity to listen for bird calls. “This course is not only about getting kids excited about Catalina Island, but also demonstrating how much there is to explore in their own communities,” says Cressita Bowman, conservancy environmental education specialist and course instructor.
Lying just 22 miles off the coast, Catalina Island is an accessible location for the greater Los Angeles community to enjoy and recreate. While the course doesn’t require a visit to the Island, the conservancy hopes it builds awareness of this recreation resource just a short boat ride away. “We’re excited to build the next generation of Catalina experts but also stewards of nature in all locations,” explains Cressita.
To learn more about the Catalina Jr. Naturalist course, or to register your child, visit the course website: www.catalinaconservancy.org/jrnat. Questions about the course can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leah Melber, Ph.D., is Director of Education at Catalina Island Conservancy.