Published on October 9, 2020

Education in Action: Adapting the BEL Program During COVID-19

Students participating in a BEL classroom program pre-COVID
BEL classroom program pre-COVID-19

The 2019-20 school year provided an important milestone for Mass Audubon's Berkshire Environmental Literacy (BEL) Program—we reached our ambitious goal of serving 50% of all Grade 3 and Grade 5 students in Berkshire County!

BEL has expanded tremendously over the past five years, from 225 students in 2015 to 1,550 students in the 2019-20 school year. These students came from 85 classes in 20 schools from 10 school districts, including pilot programs in 36 new classes. BEL has been such a success because teachers are excited to partner with our education team to enhance their classroom learning with hands-on explorations that support science standards and connect students to the natural world.

Outreach to new teachers through teacher professional development opportunities and word of mouth of our exemplary programming have helped to spread BEL throughout the County. A Natural Resources Damages (NRD) Watershed Education Program grant expanded BEL further by allowing us to offer school programs for free to Grade 3 and Grade 5 classes in the Housatonic River Watershed.

Despite and, in part, because of COVID-19, BEL served a five-year high in terms of number of districts, schools, classes, and K-12 students. When COVID-19 forced schools to close, our Berkshire education team quickly pivoted to offering virtual education programs which schools eagerly embraced during the spring months of 2020. Education staff combined "face-to-face" lessons on Zoom and Google Meet with students, as well as created packaged lessons that students could do independently featuring short videos made by our naturalists and a curated collection of video clips, PDF worksheets, and books.

The lessons encouraged students to explore the wonders of water and changing seasons wherever they could— in backyards and neighborhood parks. Students were excited to get outdoors! Teachers were thrilled to continue with interactive lessons that helped their students learn science topics and stay connected to the world right outside their windows. We also had many new schools and classes that came on-board this spring because we were able to offer well-packaged, place-based science lessons in an easy-to-use virtual format.

Teacher naturalist Dale Abrams presenting a virtual BEL program with a live frog

As schools in Berkshire County launch a new school year and teachers balance in-person and virtual learning, our education team has again risen to the challenge to provide exceptional science programming. Many teachers have jumped at the opportunity for a Mass Audubon educator to visit their virtual classroom, and lessons are well underway.

Grade 5 students are focusing on water—creating watershed models and learning the importance of protecting local bodies of water. Grade 4 students are focusing on erosion and weathering, starting with an understanding of geologic history. In a recent class, students collected a rock from outside their home and created a detailed sketch of it to share with classmates.

There is great science learning happening in these BEL lessons. But, more importantly, students are connecting deeply to the nature in their own back yard and discovering a sense of curiosity for what is happening in the natural world around them. These are essential qualities for young people to develop to become leaders in conservation and problem solvers of our most challenging environmental issues.

You can help support the important work we are doing in schools across Berkshire County with a gift to Berkshire Wildlife Sanctuaries.

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