Field trips go virtual at Waterwise Community Center

Sam the tortoise gets ready for his close-up while enjoying a pomegranate.

During a recent virtual field trip to the Waterwise Community Center, the third graders from Arroyo Elementary School in Ontario, California, had tons of questions.

What do mosquitofish eat? Can you drink the water stored in a cactus? Is Sam the tortoise a boy or a girl?

Chino Basin Water Conservation District staff members and field trip leaders Jenna Hoover and Billy Mercado smiled as the students asked questions and chimed in with observations, raising their hands physically or virtually in the window of the Zoom call.

“Do you see any clouds in the sky today?” Mercado said, as CBWCD intern Jovana Durovic aimed the camera upward, filling the lens and the students’ screens with deep blue sky. Several children shook their heads no and one or two typed the answer into the chat screen. “That’s right, no clouds over Montclair today,” Mercado said.

With off-campus outings on hold due to the pandemic, local schools and the Waterwise Community Center closed to visitors and many Southern California children learning from home, virtual field trips offer students a window into the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why CBWCD staff has teamed up with area schools to reimagine their field trip program virtually and create a sense of adventure and exploration as they teach students about local water supplies through computer screens.

“We wanted to connect students to the outdoors and outdoor education while they are learning from home,” said Maia Dean, CBWCD’s Community Programs Manager. Last October, staff began offering one virtual tour per week. Demand has been growing and next week they will begin conducting two tours each week.

Billy Mercado and Jenna Hoover take students on a virtual field trip of the Waterwise Community Center in Montclair.

The virtual field trip lasts about an hour and can be tailored to students as young as age five all the way to high school seniors. It gives children the chance to virtually experience the native plants, bioswales and groundwater basins of the Waterwise Community Center grounds through an interactive scavenger hunt and a tour. It ends with a perennial favorite: an up-close visit with Sam the Sulcata tortoise.

The children were visibly thrilled when Sam the tortoise appeared on the Zoom screen. Their questions came fast and furious. Was he a turtle? Does he ever wander off? What does he eat? Where does he sleep? And of course, how much does he weigh? Hoover and Mercado kept up with the questions verbally and in the chat. (Sam weighs 100 pounds, by the way.) Hoover called Sam the Center’s “waterwise hero” because he’s perfectly adapted to survive in semi-arid climates just like the Chino Basin area or his native African Sahel region.

CBWCD staff loves showing the students something new, though it isn’t quite the same as when they get to come experience all the sights, smells and sounds of the garden in person. The sensory aspects of hearing the geese squawk in the basin and the spicy scent of the salvias in the garden usually combine with the learning to make a memorable experience. “Try to get outside later today if you can and feel the wind on your face,” Hoover told the children.

Even virtually, teachers like Jennifer Baik have found the experience memorable and educational for their students. Baik, a fourth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, said that her students were highly engaged for the hour-long session. “They loved the interactive walk-around tour…seeing the tortoise, the lizards, and all the other plants and living organisms at the center,” she said.

Fourth-grade teacher Diane Werdmuller was impressed with the virtual tour and how it held her students’ interest. She had taken previous classes on the in-person field trips and found the virtual tour offered a very similar experience. “Everything was wonderful,” she said.

Until schools return to in-person excursions, it’s likely that virtual field trips will be a classroom staple at least through this school year. By fall, staff hopes to return to in-person field trips. Before the pandemic, the Waterwise Community Center typically hosted about more than 5,000 TK-12 students annually. “One of our main goals is to get students outside, exploring nature up close and personally,” Dean said.

Still, the pandemic has changed a lot of learning norms, so CBWCD Board members and staff are keeping their focus on reaching students and teachers where they are. Using the outdoors to teach is a great way to demonstrate how water flows from mountaintops and streams, seeps into the groundwater aquifer, and eventually comes out of kitchen and bathroom faucets. Virtual tours may not be a perfect substitute, but they are creating enrichment for students during the pandemic.

“Field trips are what kids remember, which makes them so effective for teaching kids about water conservation as a way of life in California,” said CBWCD Board Vice President Margaret Hamilton, an educator with nearly four decades of experience mainly as a first-grade teacher. “This is such a tough time to be a student, which is why it’s so exciting to be able to provide such an enriching experience for our kids. I just love seeing their excited little faces on the screen.”

Educational partnerships such as virtual field trips are part of CBWCD’s long-term efforts to reduce water use and increase local groundwater supplies by promoting water conservation education and groundwater percolation. The Waterwise Community Center is a physical and virtual hub for water conservation education in the region, providing high-quality conservation education programs for K-12 students, as well as programs for landscape professionals and homeowners. Learn more about virtual field trip programs and more HERE.

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