Ohio University

OHIO Voinovich School partnerships provide online educational opportunities and virtual science fair during pandemic

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Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs is partnering with regional organizations and communities to help them adapt to the new reality of remote learning and education during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Voinovich School is offering a wide range of environmental learning activities for students with virtual field trips, as well as shifting the annual district science fair held at OHIO for grades 5-12 to be held virtually. 

“During this time of uncertainty, anything we can do here at Ohio University to help and support our community and region is vital,” President M. Duane Nellis said. “I am very proud of the efforts being made to support students with remote learning opportunities about the environment and also to recognize their efforts with a virtual science fair.” 

In a partnership with The Wilds, a conservation center located on nearly 10,000 acres of reclaimed mine land in rural southeastern Ohio, the Voinovich School provides six virtual field trips on watersheddata.com. The virtual tours include 360-degree photos of restoration landscapes across The Wilds’ grounds. 

“The Wilds enjoys a good partnership with Ohio University through our departments of Wildlife Ecology and Restoration Ecology,” said Dr. Jan Ramer, Vice President at The Wilds. “We have a particularly strong relationship with the Voinovich School, which also conducted an economic impact study on The Wilds last year, demonstrating that in addition to the important conservation work we do, The Wilds contributes nearly $14 million to the economies of our surrounding communities! We are proud of this partnership and this 360 Photo Point Project, which helps to engage members of our community in restoration ecology. We look forward to future collaboration.”

OHIO Master of Science in Environmental Studies student Bekkah Simkovich conducted the project. Although the project started before Ohio schools canceled in-person classes this spring, work sped up to finalize the project to allow it to be an environmental learning experience for students at home.

“The Wilds is pleased to work with the Voinovich School in launching the 360 Photo Point Project to provide the opportunity for people to explore restoration projects from their homes,” said Dr. Rebecca Swab, Director of Restoration Ecology at The Wilds. “Educating the public about ecosystems and how to restore them is equally as important to us as the restoration work itself. This project is an excellent way to work toward accomplishing this goal.” 

The 360 STEM Education Project was funded by the American Electric Power Foundation, which has sponsored various watershed and STEM education and research projects for over a decade. 

The website watersheddata.com, developed by the Voinovich School as part of the multi-disciplinary Appalachian Watershed Research Group, also hosts other environmental educational activities students can engage with, including My Backyard Stream. This tool allows students to observe various water conditions across Ohio. In addition, students can participate in their own exploration by investigating streams in their neighborhoods or backyards by making visual observations and/or testing water quality, and then uploading their findings to the website. 

My Backyard Stream provides an online citizen scientist platform for students and teachers to share photos of streams, data, and environmental observations,” said Jen Bowman, director of environmental programs at the Voinovich School. “This is a great opportunity for students to engage in environmental learning without having to leave their own backyards.”  

Teachers can find resources and lesson plans for this program under the “Education” tab, as well as lesson plans, videos, 360-degree virtual field trip photos, “how to” videos and other activities. In this time of uncertainty, this resource allows students to continue learning while not physically in the schools. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic canceled schools, the state of Ohio was also preparing to host district science fairs across the state. These fairs have been transferred to online formats in order to still honor students’ efforts. 

Dr. Natalie Kruse, associate professor and director of the Environmental Studies Program at the Voinovich School, serves as the director of the Ohio Academy of Science’s District 12 Science Day and the Southeast Ohio Regional Science Fair. 

These programs reach a seven-county region, including Athens, Hocking, Jackson, Meigs, Morgan, Ross and Vinton. Normally, 120-140 students in grades 5-12 from those counties participate at the district science fair held at OHIO. This year’s fair was originally scheduled to be held in March. 

During this transition, Kruse is helping answer any questions teachers and students may have as they adjust to this new remote format of the district science fair.

“We’re helping guide teachers and students remotely to accomplish these projects,” Kruse said. “Some students have been working on these projects for months, so we didn’t want to cancel the science fair. We hope to guide them with this virtual fair, while also valuing the work that the students have already put into their projects.” 

Students will have the first half of April to record and upload videos and photos online of their projects. The Ohio Academy of Science’ State Science Fair will then be held remotely in May, and students who receive a superior rating at the district fair will be able to compete in the statewide competition.

Kruse will also help coordinate 100 judges across disciplines and awards for specific topics, review results, and promote students on to the state science fair. Additionally, Voinovich School Senior Executive in Residence Dr. Jacob White is coordinating the judging for the District 14 Science Day for students in Pike, Scioto, Lawrence, and Gallia County, which is being hosted by the University of Rio Grande.

White has also been working with the Ohio Department of Education to offer professional development workshop webinars across the state to help science teachers learn about and transition to the state’s new science learning standards.

Learn more about these projects at ohio.edu/scifair and watersheddata.com.