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Twin Cities nature centers adopt digital to keep informing during lockdown

The learning curve has been steep, but nature centers are adapting to life in a shut down.
Adam Barnett and Allie Gams Beeson, interpretive naturalists at Richardson Nature Center, filming a video with a red-tailed hawk on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.

Adam Barnett and Allie Gams Beeson, interpretive naturalists at Richardson Nature Center, filming a video with a red-tailed hawk on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.

There haven’t been any classroom visits to Dodge Nature Center in recent weeks, no groups of families coming by to take part in some natural programming. But staff at the West St. Paul nature center have remained busy.

Check the Dodge website or Facebook page and you’ll see a collection of new digital content: The “Distance Learning with Dodge” video series, at-home natural scavenger hunt checklists, and black-and-white coloring pages depicting flora and fauna, for example.

With social distancing directives wiping out the nature center’s regular educational programming, staff naturalists have found themselves thrust into a new role: digital content creator.

“That may not have been the focus of our studies earlier on,” said Pete Cleary, director of environmental education at Dodge Nature Center. “So we have a lot of people picking up a lot of [skills], and trying out new technology and new software.”

It’s a shift taking place at nature centers across the Twin Cities. Staff members accustomed to the rhythms of outdoors presentations in front of a live crowd have scrambled to learn the nuances of video production.

“This has been very, very hard and very frustrating and overwhelming,” said Allie Gams Beeson, an interpretive naturalist at Richardson Nature Center in Bloomington. “I did not know how to do editing before this. I Googled ‘best editing app.’ Really this is totally something brand new.”

The team at Richardson has leaned, in part, into recreating activities digitally they would normally do with young visitors. That includes reading children’s books on Facebook, and regular Sunday matinee puppet shows. They’ve also experimented with things like Instagram live.

It’s required some resourcefulness, with naturalists using whatever smartphones and laptops they have on-hand at home. Not to mention learning to account for things like mic quality, lighting, background noise and app quirks.

“It’s been really hard,” said Gams Beeson.

Why put in the effort to muddle through the digital content muck? One thing that separates a nature center from a preserve or park space is the interpretive element, acknowledged Mark Oestreich, nature center manager at Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park.

“I think by having education and showing ways to connect - meaningful ways - then you develop an appreciation for places like that,” he said. These experiences, in turn, can help support long-term efforts in sustainability and stewardship, he explained.

Westwood’s staff, like others, has been posting regular videos: “Westwood Wednesdays,” highlighting some of the on-site ambassador animals that still require care during the lockdown. The hope, Oestreich said, is “to stay connected to the community that comes to us.”

“We’re still here, we’re still programming,” he continued. “It looks different, but this is what we can do right now. But we’re still able to connect.”

These digital lessons, while helping to fill the gap during this shut-down period, aren’t perfect substitutes for in-person classes and activities.

It’s harder to gauge how a lesson is being received, Cleary said, and whether people are getting excited about the topic.

Similarly, there isn’t the same opportunity for nature’s improvised lessons, explained Richardson interpretive naturalist Monica Rauchwarter. During regular programming, naturalists often walk outside unsure exactly what they might see, leading to “in-the-moment” discoveries.

“The shift has been rocky,” said Rauchwarter, adding: “Our main goals are always the public, and that’s not only the mission of the park district, but also just our personal drive and motivation within our own jobs.”

For many nature center staffers, that’s what it comes back to.

“We all love being able to share nature, whatever parts of it we’re doing, with people of all ages,” said Cleary. Even if it can’t be in front of people, like they might prefer.

Not that there’s nothing to be gained from these digital endeavors.

“I’ve learned a ton,” said Gams Beeson, “and I’m kind of excited to take what I’ve learned and be able to continue this forward and make it useful for the next couple months.

“Or however long we need to be doing this.”

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