Forests Ontario

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Bringing Nature to the Great Indoors: The Ontario Envirothon Goes Digital

Posted: July 13, 2020

By Noah Page

Is it possible to move an environmental education program with hands-on components to a fully online setting? That’s the question that the pandemic imposed on Forests Ontario’s education staff. While afforestation may be our forte, we also work hard to raise awareness about the importance of forests and educate youth about natural systems, such as soil, waterways and wildlife habitats, and what Ontarians can do to protect them. Each spring, teams of high schoolers face off in the Ontario Envirothon to compete in environmental activities. Due to the pandemic, Forests Ontario had to cancel all in-person Envirothon events. But, just as we did with our spring 2020 tree planting projects, we successfully adapted. Envirothon programming is now available online and accessible to anyone interested in learning more about nature.

To develop the online resources, Forests Ontario’s education staff, Allison Hands and Madeleine Bray, divided the core Ontario Envirothon topics (Wildlife, Aquatics, Forestry, Soils and this year’s current issue topic, Waste Management) into four weeks of programming. Each week’s challenges included one to two videos, activity sheets, and home-based hands-on activities/open labs. For example, the Soil Your Undies activity measured microbial life in soil. Participants buried pairs of 100 per cent cotton underwear in their yards. After waiting two months, they then dug up the undies to compare them. Underwear that was more worn out – by worms, fungi and bacteria – indicated healthier soil.

A network of volunteers with specialized knowledge developed the videos for Envirothon. These included: the County of Renfrew, EcoSpark, and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH). We’re also grateful to Serra-Willow Buchanan and Zach DiLoreto, University of Toronto PhD candidates, for their work in developing the video on soils.

Once the four weeks had passed and the intrepid participants had finished improving their ecological expertise, Forests Ontario posted an online quiz to let them test their knowledge. These resources were available at no cost.

Allison notes an advantage to the digital program: it allowed participants from across Ontario to participate, no matter their location. There were, of course, some challenges. The education team had to design the hands-on components with emergency orders and participant safety in mind, and had to consider how limited access to equipment might complicate hands-on activities. They also had to consider Internet speed and access to accounts. “We think we reached a nice balance between all the considerations,” Allison said. Based on her experiences developing online education materials, she recommends that educators be flexible with their planning and engage with their team members frequently to understand each student’s needs.

Forests Ontario would also like to thank this year’s Ontario Envirothon sponsors:

  • Maples Leaves Forever
  • Enbridge
  • Cabela’s Outdoor Fund
  • Algonquin Forestry Authority
  • Fleming College

If you’re interested in testing your nature knowledge, try taking the 2020 Envirothon quiz until July 17.