August 17, 2020
Article by Gareth Henderson, Omni Reporter
The education sector is looking to the outdoors for solutions, and the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vermont, is working on ways to help.
Teaching kids about the natural world is central to the VINS mission, and as the start of school nears on Sept. 8, the organization is in full planning mode. The adaptable nature of VINS’ educational programming has it well-suited for a time when flexibility is key, according to Hannah Gelroth, VINS’ director of school programs and teacher professional development.
“It’s built on the idea of meeting the teachers where they are and what their needs are,” Gelroth said.
While many schools are planning to use hybrid models of in-person and virtual education, VINS is considering how to combine outside and virtual modes within its lessons offered online. The organization added a host of at-home education resources on its website after schools shuttered in March. VINS is also thinking about how best to offer resources for schools and other experiences.
“We’re also looking at expanding our homeschooling offerings,” Gelroth said. “That’s another way we can be a resource. Some of our lessons will be virtual, and we can expand that as well.”
VINS offers programs for students of all grade levels, highlighting creative design, observation and writing about the environment they’re observing. Experiences for preschool groups are also available.
One of the online offerings for grades K-5, is titled, “Building a Beaver Dam — Can you build a beaver dam that can stop the flow of water?,” gives a material list, prompt questions and a link to the VINS education department for assistance. It encourages children to go outside and have a hands-on experience, while also using the features of an online platform.
A new partnership will be a major factor as these plans coalesce. After March when schools closed, FourScienceVT was formed — that’s a partnership between VINS, the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, the Montshire Museum in Norwich and ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington. Together, these four organizations plan to help develop innovative STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) experiences for Vermonters in a variety of formats. At VINS, Gelroth and her team of educators are part of a committee working on that effort.
“They’re involved in a discussion really to reimagine what additional things VINS will be able to offer, both to schools and also to homeschooling,” said Charlie Rattigan, VINS’ executive director.
VINS’ annual Science Symposium offers another big opportunity for this important time in education, though planning for the next event is not yet complete. Rattigan sees a chance to “broaden the audience” and include homeschoolers, since the symposium can possibly blend virtual and at-home experiences.
For the week-long symposium, VINS educators “work with community schools to identify a local environmental problem, then use science and research to solve it,” as the online description says.
“Each day has a keynote speaker, a scientist doing real world work,” Rattigan noted.
In 2019, over 12 schools and 450 kids from elementary and middle schools took part in the symposium, where they presented solutions to real-life environmental issues. This year’s event was cancelled due to COVID-19, but the symposium presents an opportunity which is part of ongoing discussions.
As for schools, VINS plans to make its campus available, including its outdoor classroom and meeting spaces where a class or pod can hold a lesson.
“Teachers can run it, but also a VINS educator,” said Rattigan, adding the team is considering how to best promote those resources now.
VINS is also weighing how to use its Forest Canopy Walk amid its offerings in the coming weeks, and virtual field trips may also be part of the future. One school is looking for grant funding to have the VINS educators work with their teachers on best practices for outdoor education.
“That may be a model for us to offer other schools and teachers as well for a professional development component,” Gelroth said.
As planning efforts continue, the organization is supported by donors who have given generously during this time of need. Rattigan said a number of foundations have stepped up to give more than their usual grant request.
“We’re encouraged that people recognize VINS is delivering valuable stuff, and they want to support it and make sure it weathers this storm,” he said.
Some of those supporters have been with VINS for many years, and they’ve helped the organization close in on another milestone. VINS turns 50 in 2022, as Assistant Executive Director Mary Davidson Graham pointed out.
“It says a lot about our programs and how valuable we are to the community,” she said.
Photo Caption: Forest Canopy Walk at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vermont.
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