A girl wearing a yellow life jacket holds up a small crab.
Connecting Kids with Nature A student holds up a crab caught during VCR's summer kayak camp. © Jennifer Davis / TNC

Stories in Virginia

Education Program at VVCR

Connecting students and teachers with the natural environment through hands-on activities and experiences.

This page was updated on September 1, 2020

Virginia’s Eastern Shore is a living textbook waiting to be opened.  The Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve's (VVCR) education program aims to connect students and educators in Accomack and Northampton Counties to the natural world through experiential field trips and professional development opportunities.  

Six children standing in groups of two use dip nets to explore a tidal creek.
Northampton Middle School 7th graders use dip nets to sift for macroinvertebrates in a seaside tidal creek. © Jennifer Miller / TNC

Connecting Students and Nature

Studies have shown that repeated field experiences have a measurable impact on student performance. That’s why we’ve made it our goal for every student on the Eastern Shore to have multiple opportunities during elementary, middle and high school to visit the reserve, especially those who may not even realize how many incredible things they can find right in their own backyard.

Now in their third year, the curriculum-based trips have been designed for 5th, 7th, and 10th grade students. Students have an opportunity for hands-on learning in different Eastern Shore ecosystems. 5th graders visit the historic 1250-acre Brownsville Preserve, while 7th graders examine the seaside tidal creeks via kayak. The 10th grade field trips include a boat trip across the coastal bays to VVCR’s Parramore Island, where students practice scientific data collection and analysis and learn about barrier island dynamics.

All grade levels learn about native plant and animal species and practice data collection using a variety of scientific techniques and equipment in the field.  

The field experiences were collaboratively designed with local educators through participatory workshops to ensure they are aligned with Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOLs)  The field trips are intended to enhance curriculum and make real-world connections with activities and learning points in the classroom. Seeing an American oystercatcher or a harbor seal and even being on a boat—a first for many students—become lasting memories.

All costs for public schools in Accomack and Northampton Counties—including bus rental and substitute teacher wages—are covered by The Nature Conservancy through a grant funded by NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) program.

In addition to the MWEE-based (Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences) field experience initiative and two summer Nature Camp programs for children ages 6-12, the VVCR education program also provides support to local teachers and students of all grade levels through innovative approaches such as virtual classroom visits and field-based video lessons to continue the children’s connection with nature during a time when hands-on group activities are not always possible.

Professional Development: A Community of Educators

VVCR's education program also offers a variety of professional development opportunities throughout the year for local educators in all grade levels and disciplines, including workshops on coastal resilience and coastal bay ecology. 

At the start of each school year, we invite new teachers and administrators from Accomack and Northampton Counties to explore Brownsville Preserve and the barrier islands with our staff to learn more about the services we can provide them and their students, with an ultimate goal of connecting these teachers—and their students—to the special place where they live and work.

The intensive, week-long professional development workshop—Exploring Virginia’s Coast—is offered free of charge each summer by TNC to all local teachers regardless of grade or discipline taught, thanks in part to funding from The Volgenau Foundation.

Each day centers around one of VVCR’s core conservation areas, including land protection, marine habitat restoration, migratory bird conservation and coastal resilience and climate change. Teachers are immersed in daily field experiences, expert presentations and robust group discussions. The field experiences provide time to explore VVCR’s barrier islands while trips to TNC restoration sites offer opportunities to see our work in action.

In some cases, as with our oyster reef restoration work, the teachers get to jump in and get hands on, whether filling bags with oyster shells collected by TNC volunteers at local seafood festivals or donning rubber gloves to help build concrete reef substrate.

The current realities of COVID-19 presented unique challenges to holding this year’s workshops.  With carefully developed safety protocols in place, the VVCR outreach and education team led by Outreach and Education Coordinator Margaret Van Clief and Preserve and Education Manager Jenny Miller successfully held the first field-based, hands on professional development workshop of the 2020/21 school year for five Accomack County elementary school teachers in early August.

Masks were required of teachers and staff at all times when indoors, on boats and any time outdoors when appropriate distancing wasn’t possible. Snacks and drinks were individually packaged, and hand sanitizer was provided in all common areas. All safety measures were agreed upon by staff and teachers in advance of attending the workshop.

Tropical Storm Isaias presented a further challenge, to which the teachers and VVCR staff rose with enthusiasm and flexibility. Although we lost a day due to safety concerns, teachers were able to enjoy all three planned boat trips to the barrier islands and coastal bays, along with a kayak outing in the salt marsh following a morning exploration of Metompkin Island. There was also plenty of time to brainstorm and discuss how they would use the lessons learned in their own classrooms.

Working with and supporting teachers is a special pleasure for our VVCR team. This year’s workshop participants exhibited flexibility, curiosity and enthusiasm throughout the week as everyone did their best to adapt to both a pandemic and a tropical storm. We feel certain that these educators can handle the challenges that face them in the coming year with strength and compassion—we only wish we could give them another week to brainstorm and unwind in the wilderness first.

CONTACT

Jennifer Miller, Preserve and Education Manager
(757) 442-3049
email: jennifer.miller@tnc.org

Margaret Van Clief, Outreach and Education Coordinator
(757) 442-3049
email: margaret.vanclief@tnc.org

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