Teaching field courses in the era of COVID-19 poses hurdles to mimic the experience, but for instructors in the Sustainable Watersheds (WR 304) course, it was an opportunity for collaboration, science outreach and expanding accessibility to natural resources through a multi-video, virtual hydrology field trip.
WR 304 co-instructor Jemma Fadum and teaching assistant Natalie Schmer, both students in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, personally knew the benefit of real-world experiences students would have been provided in the course if not for the pandemic.
“Field experiences were a huge highlight in a lot of my classes as an undergraduate, so we still wanted to provide that field experience the best way we could,” Schmer said.
The two decided to create a virtual hydrology field trip that would mimic the culminating final project established by former instructors of the course.
Building the virtual infrastructure
This project would normally build students’ field skills by having them collect and use data from along the scenic Poudre River, which required the pair to find data collected using different water quality techniques. The videos would also require professional video skills, which neither Schmer or Fadum had.
To get their hands on Poudre River data, Schmer, a second-year master’s student, turned to her own graduate project, serendipitously conducted along the Poudre.
Schmer’s work with advisor Matt Ross is a collaboration with the City of Fort Collins and In-Situ, Inc., a local business that manufactures environmental monitoring equipment. They installed a network of water quality sensors to take measurements on water quality variables like dissolved oxygen, temperature, and conductivity. They were excited that this project had broader applications, like use in education.
“We wanted to have an outreach component to this collaboration and realized that developing this assignment would be a great opportunity to figure out what is possible for outreach and science communication,” Schmer said.
Additionally, Schmer and Fadum found support from CSU Online. The course had already been selected to be revised for use online and the developers jumped on board with the virtual field trip. Not only did video producer Jason Russell and videographer Helga Hizer bring with them expertise in videography and video editing, they also provided a drone for aerial footage that would elevate both the content and cinematography of the videos.
The videos also came together with the support of co-instructor Glenn Patterson who helped develop content and the idea of vignettes for the series.
After quickly creating a storyboard to determine content, it was out to the sites for three days of steep banks, boulders and sandbar deposits and water edging close to the top of Schmer’s chest-high waders as she stood in the cold river while explaining different measurement techniques and the ecology of the river.
The result of these efforts were videos that outlined three reaches of the iconic river system. Throughout the videos, students observed changes in the river as the water traveled through diversions, drainages and a water treatment plant.
Beyond COVID-19: Natural resources accessibility
Fadum said they felt gratified when they saw the finished project and received positive responses from their students. They also realized the videos may have practical beyond addressing COVID-19 restrictions to change the way the natural world can be available and accessible to all.
“This could potentially be an option for opening up accessibility in natural resources courses, especially in courses where the field component is often so important but not accessible by everyone,” Fadum said. “Virtual field trips could be the answer.”
Written by Taryn Contento and Izzy Smith