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Virtual Field Trips Opens New Worlds for All Students

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Virtual Field Trips Opens New Worlds for All Students

In the latest edition of the Ontario School Library Association’s Magazine -  The Teaching Librarian - our President, Joanne Sallay, interviewed Lorrie Ann Smith, Vice President of Science Education at the Ontario Science Centre in her column The Buzz. Read on to learn how their online field trips and learning experiences have become more accessible to students, teachers and families throughout Ontario and the world. 

Article as seen in September 2021 issue - Virtual @ your library:

While this issue will reach you at the start of a new school year, I write this column in June as we conclude it. This past academic year has been like no other with either full virtual school, or the combination of in-person and remote learning for students.

As a result of the pandemic, many traditional learning experiences were put on hold due to closures. The silver lining is this brought new opportunities with many known attractions and destinations pivoting to provide digital learning. This included the introduction of virtual field trips, providing a gateway to so many experiences for young people.

The Ontario Science Centre located in Toronto, Ontario is amongst this group, seizing the opportunity to expand their reach and accessibility with innovative online programs and workshops. Read our interview to learn how teachers across the province organized interactive visits that normally would not have been possible due to distance, travel time and cost of busing.

While the future is unknown, it appears that virtual is here to stay and will continue to play a key role in future learning for students of all ages.

1) On March 13, 2020, the Ontario Science Centre closed to visitors due to the pandemic. How did your organization pivot digitally during the pandemic to ensure students, teachers and families continue to learn?

Like other museums and cultural institutions, we adapted quickly to find new ways to engage with our audience – especially families with children, teachers and students. By going digital, we have expanded the reach of the Ontario Science Centre, especially through virtual school programs and livestreamed events, which have been very popular with teachers.

Ask a Scientist events stream live every other Wednesday at 2 p.m. on the Science Centre’s Facebook and YouTube channels. We have featured astronauts, authors, engineers as well as our own staff scientists. For special occasions, we have partnered with other organizations, like the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory for our Halloween Creepy Crawlies stream and llusionarium for a showcase of the Science of Magic. We capped off the school year in June with an event where participants learned about the science behind bubbles, including how to make giant ones and how to keep them from popping. We even shared our famous bubble recipe.

Immediately after we closed our doors, we went to work to develop classroom resources for teachers, knowing they need supports for online teaching. This included engaging online content for students studying remotely from home, as well as ideas for in-person and virtual classrooms. In partnership with Science North and the Ontario Ministry of Education, we developed grade-specific, curriculum-connected resources that included video presentations and extension activities using household materials. We also developed professional learning videos and a STEM Education Toolkit focused on inquiry learning and problem-solving skills, which are aimed at Grades 6 to 8 but can be adapted for other grades. We are currently working on a new suite of curriculum-linked resources for K-8 teachers and students for the new science curriculum launching this year.

Our most popular offering was our virtual school programs for students from Grades 1 to 12. We offered live sessions with science educators via video conferencing programs such as Zoom or Google Meet, so students could enjoy an engaging, interactive experience and have their questions answered live via chat. Prior to the pandemic, these types of programs were usually delivered in-person at the Ontario Science Centre during a school field trip.

One teacher wrote to us: “I just wanted to THANK both presenters that facilitated the Light & Sound virtual field trip. My grade 4 students, none of whom has ever been to the Science Centre, LOVED the program. I think the best comment was, ‘This makes me want to be a Scientist!’"

The virtual school programs included topics such as Body Works, Destination Space and Fun with Chemistry. There was so much demand that we decided to record the programs and make them available to all teachers until the end of June so they could watch with their classes at any time. We estimate that more than 1.25 million students have watched one of our programs.

2) How has your virtual programming made the Ontario Science Centre more accessible to students across Ontario?

In the past, people could only get an engaging and interactive Science Centre experience if they visited us in person. For elementary teachers outside the Greater Toronto Area, this was very difficult because there are barriers to taking young children on long-distance field trips.

We have heard from teachers all across the province from South Porcupine to Windsor to Ottawa, who have thanked us for our resources, saying their students have benefited. One teacher told us that she loved being able to pause a video and adapt it to her lesson plan. In some cases, she said she would play something again to emphasize a scientific concept.

We know that teachers from other provinces are using our Science at Home experiments and downloadable activities. And we have been pleasantly surprised to have viewers on our YouTube channel from the United States, the United Kingdom, India and the Philippines. We love that people all over the world are getting the Ontario Science Centre experience, wherever they may be.

If there’s an upside to being forced to close during the pandemic, it’s that we know our reach is farther than ever: from a virtual school program with a science educator, a livestreamed event or even an online tour of an exhibition. We are accessible from anywhere.

3) Your most popular school program during the pandemic has been the Science of Anxiety. What inspired you to incorporate mental health into your workshops?

Yes, you’re right. Our recorded virtual school programs were very well received in the 2020-21 school year, covering everything from Structures and Stability for Grades 1 to 3, right up to high school programs on topics ranging from Human Anatomy and Physiology to Climate Change.

Our most viewed program is Mental Health Junior: The Science of Anxiety for Grades 6 to 8. And we also have a version for older students, Mental Health Senior: The Science of Anxiety for Grades 9 to 12.

I think this has been a very timely topic during the pandemic, as parents and educators have been concerned about the mental health of children and teens. This program was developed in partnership with local Toronto school boards and health organizations. It takes a neurobiological perspective on anxiety and about what is going on in our brains when we feel anxious, how it affects our bodies and why stress can sometimes be a good thing. We are very proud of this program, which has won both national and international awards for excellence in science programming.  

4) For students in French Immersion programs, what resources are available to take advantage of?

All of our curriculum resources are available for teachers in both English and French. The STEM Education Toolkit, also available in French, has been very popular with French immersion teachers across the province.

Some of our recorded virtual school programs are available in French. One Grade 1 teacher told us she would play a video in French first, and then follow up with the English version to reinforce an idea, as scientific concepts can be difficult to understand for young children who are just beginning to learn French.

5)  While there is still uncertainty for the school year, what are your plans for virtual experiences as restrictions ease and into the foreseeable future?

We are spending the summer developing additional online resources for teachers and students as well as finalizing our plans for school visits in the fall. In the event in-person field trips do not proceed this fall, so we are expanding our virtual school programs with all new topics, and we will be offering a new suite of synchronous (live) bookable programs as well as continuing to offer free access to our pre-recorded school programs.

Even when students and teachers are ready to come back in person, we will continue to offer virtual field trips to engage those who are not able to visit the physical Science Centre. We are excited to be able to provide fun and informative science resources, programs and supports for all the amazing teachers and students out there.  

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