Although the giant sequoia are fantastic teachers in and of themselves, as an outdoor educator, I am the lucky one that gets to share their unique story with the world. While I haven’t physically left Calaveras Big Trees State Park in the Sierra Nevada, since October I’ve connected virtually with about 2,000 students in 70 classrooms from seven countries and 18 states.
This is all made possible with digital field trips to see Calaveras Big Trees through our Parks Online Resources for Teachers & Students (PORTS®) program offered by California State Parks. PORTS is a FREE distance learning program that uses the power of videoconferencing through platforms such as Zoom and Skype, to deliver immersive and interactive field trips to the classroom. The virtual field trips are designed to help K-12 educators teach Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards in the context of California State Parks and increase science and conservation literacy in the classroom, ultimately creating the future environmental stewards of our natural world.
The Giant Sequoia are one of the many topic offerings from CA State Parks, some others include Hearst Castle, kelp forests, elephant seals, the Gold Rush, monarch butterfly migration, redwood ecology, salmon life cycles, state government, tide pools—about 15 programs in total. Just like the coast redwoods ecology unit, the giant sequoia program was created in partnership with Save the Redwoods league to further the mission of connecting people to the redwood forests by supporting education. The ultimate goal of the giant sequoia program is to expose the wonders and challenges of this forest to K-12 students while expanding their knowledge and interest not only in the giant sequoia but also in the diverse natural and cultural treasures found in California’s state parks. Most teachers have compared the Calaveras Big Trees field trip to physically being in the park and going on a real nature walk because the technology is that clear.
Since we began offering this program, I’ve received so many thank you letters and drawings from teachers and students. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“That was absolutely phenomenal! Thank you so much for sharing so much with our class and having a great program available! What a treat for our class!” – Wendy Mertan, LA Unified School District
“They enjoyed seeing the giant trees live. The walk around the park was so real that we felt we were there.” – Gordana Novak, Osnovna škola “Vladimir Nazor” Križevci, Croatia
“Ranger Jenny was beyond outstanding! Her knowledge was impressive, her ability to interact with the kids was amazing, and her presentation was so professional! Whatever her highest rating, she gets it plus some! What an awesome experience!!” – Jennifer Lester, Capistrano Unified School District
The most recent virtual adventure was the intense, 48-hour global learning event called Skype-a-Thon, presented by Microsoft Education’s Skype in the Classroom. With the motto “Open Hearts. Open Minds,” Skype-a-Thon aims to foster a community of global citizens and students through classroom-to-classroom and classroom-to-expert Skype sessions. Microsoft tracks the virtual distance traveled of all participating Skype calls made for 48 hours. For every 400 miles traveled, a donation was made of essential educational resources for a child in one of the nine WE.org villages around the world. WE Villages is a holistic, sustainable development model that addresses the social and economic factors that underlie childhood poverty and strives to provide transformative solutions.
The total distance traveled by all Skype-a-Thon participants was just over 23.5 million virtual miles, and four participating California State Parks collectively traveled 116,713 miles! The donation will fund essential resources for 35,000 kids—everything from the construction of new classrooms and libraries to school supplies and teacher trainings in designated WE-sponsored communities throughout the world.
Here at Calaveras Big Trees, I virtually traveled about 27,000 miles and spread the giant sequoia love to 13 classrooms during the Skype-a-Thon. Students were impressed and amazed by the giant sequoia, as we took a nature walk adventure down part of the North Grove Trail and learned about the adaptations that give these trees their enduring strength. The walk culminates on our Discovery Stump with a rare chance to stand on a giant sequoia, something they may never get to do in real life. During the brief field trip, I am able to share the wonders of the giant sequoia, from their tiny seeds to the human history of this park, the role of fire in the forest and the importance of conservation and preservation, in the hope of creating a lasting impression on students from around the world and even inspiring them to visit a state park.
I genuinely feel I opened hearts and minds to these incredible trees during this global learning adventure and the field trip opportunities continue beyond the event.