On one hand, it’s never been more vital to get outdoors and avoid the brain-fog caused by quarantine. On the other, you can’t become an expert on environmental stewardship and natural resources by just standing around and looking at trees. So the pandemic presents the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences with a daunting challenge: How do you prepare the next generation of ecologists at a time when hands-on classwork isn’t possible?
“We had to switch rapidly to adapt,” says Dan Brown, director of the school. With a curriculum that in the past depended heavily on taking groups of students out into nature, “we’re going to be heavily curtailed in the fall. We’ve had some really creative faculty adapting the learning objectives and finding a way to make it work.”
That’s led to some faculty introducing the concept of a virtual field trip, with the school purchasing GoPro cameras to walk through a forested area while livestreaming or recording themselves for a later lecture. Other classes have mailed gear to students, such as measurement equipment and wildlife cameras to be used at home. Classes that normally would involve a greenhouse have arranged for students to pick up plants and soil and do the classwork wherever they’re quarantined.
“We’re basically saying, ‘go measure trees in a local park or set up a camera trap in your back yard,’” Brown says.
Though the logistical changes have caused a bit of upheaval, the curriculum itself hasn’t changed much since there’s always been a focus on spending time outside of the classroom.
“I will say that we’ve seen more impact on the curriculum with the social activism associated with police violence,” Brown says. “There’s a strong move towards recognizing social justice and colonial histories into our understanding of resource use.”
That can take the form of acknowledging injustices of the past, such as the racist past of Sierra Club founder John Muir. There’s also increased attention to the role that genetics and eugenics play in upholding white supremacy, as well as the exclusion of Native community participation in conversations about nature.
The changes spurred by the pandemic and by social justice organizers comes at a time when there’s a dramatic increase in demand for natural areas, particularly public lands close to population centers. Meeting that demand will require a well-trained cohort of naturalists prepared to manage resources at a highly volatile point in history.
“There’s a lot of ways that conservation is exclusionary,” Brown says. “We’re going to have a seminar offering in the winter quarter that looks at those topics.”