Bringing outdoors education online

From left, Paul Smith’s College faculty Deb Naybor, Brett McLeod, Justin Waskiewicz and Eric Holmlund adhere to social distancing guidelines while planning out field work for the new Masters of Science in Natural Resource Conservation at the college’s Visitor Interpretive Center. (Provided photo — Melanie Johnson)

PAUL SMITHS — As COVID-19 has pushed college students to complete their spring semesters from home, Paul Smith’s College’s forestry classes are moving from outdoors to online, and professors and students have had to get creative to replicate the “Paul Smith’s experience” they went there for.

Forestry Department Chair Brett McLeod said professors are strapping on GoPro cameras to their heads and filming themselves doing tree felling demonstrations to share with students.

These “lab captures” are part of what makes forestry unique: It requires boots-on-the-ground work. Still, he said, it’s better to do, not to just read or watch.

“The current situation has demonstrated how valuable true, hands-on experiential education is,” McLeod said. “In some cases, there’s no substitute.”

Melanie Johnson, who teaches geographic information systems, said though her classes are already heavily computer-based, using GIS software to organize data, analyze it and present it visually, she still has faced a lot of troubles with organizing remote learning.

GIS software requires computers with high-performance video cards, similar to a specialized gaming computer. Johnson said most students don’t have the laptops to run it, so she switched to an online GIS program to create web-specific maps. The college purchased some students Amazon software than allows them to remote access other, stronger computers through the cloud.

Still, many students don’t have good broadband. Johnson said some are doing their GIS work on their cellphones, which is very different than working on a computer.

She said her students have altered their final projects from being data-dependent analyses to focusing more on data collection.

“The students have been amazing. They’re so resilient, and they’re just so happy to work with us,” Johnson said.

She said students are still going out and doing data collection where they are. Most forestry labs and projects have moved home, too.

“Sometimes students will literally be standing in the patch of woods behind their house, and we might be helping them to identify a tree,” McLeod said. “Some of the labs have been in their backyard, or their local park.”

Johnson said some students live in apartments in urban areas and can’t even leave their dwelling, so they are doing data collection from their own living rooms. She said while doing park inventory, they might use a couch as a picnic table.

“It depends largely on their imagination,” Johnson said.

Pros and cons

Bandwidth, computers and outdoors access are not the only problems remote learning poses.

“Some people’s homes are not terribly conducive for learning, whether that’s a technological limitation … and then there’s all types of domestic situations that people are in,” McLeod said.

Johnson said some students are working three jobs, some are homeschooling their own children, and a surprising number of them have been helping their grandparents weather the pandemic.

They are sharing internet access with whole families and having trouble finding quiet spaces to work if they live in small houses.

Johnson said his primary concern is how to take care of her students. She said she knows several who are sick, not with COVID-19 but with anxiety. McLeod said he was worried that not seeing his students might mean they would drift away from their studies.

“I was worried that students would just go MIA on us, but every one of my students are there, they’re participating and turning in work,” McLeod said. “Sort of business as usual.”

He said this was a “pleasant surprise” and that it didn’t happen by accident.

There is a team of college faculty and staff who are keeping contact with students, and reaching out to them when they miss a class or assignment. Johnson said this support network and the “flag” program is working great.

Faculty call students at home, text them and even call other students they know they are friends with to find them.

“We are a small enough school. We know all the students,” McLeod said. “We’re able to oftentimes, for lack of a better term, hunt them down.

“This has highlighted how much of a community Paul Smith’s is, and we kind of take it for granted,” he said. “The passing each other in the hall, going fishing together.”

Johnson said she is using Zoom to stay in contact with her students, and said she’s doing many one-on-one sessions. She said she has actually become closer with some students through this.

“They usually want to say hi to the dogs at some point during the call,” Johnson said.

She is teaching classes live and recording them for later. She said students actually have better questions now, because they have time to think about it.

“It’s actually more interactive in a weird way,” Johnson said.

She said the professor’s role of interacting with students has become more important, and that many students just need someone to listen to them.

McLeod said when the coronavirus started hitting in February some students contemplated dropping out. Many of them stuck it out, and he said they are still finding ways to learn about the wilderness from the comfort of their own homes.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today